Elections and old habits

Monday, 6 July 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

ELECTION season is upon us again as nominations for upcoming Parliamentary Elections opened today but the road to 17 August polls has already been tainted with incidents of election violence. 

A United National Party (UNP) supporter, an associate of UNP MP Thalatha Atukorale, and father of two, was murdered in Ratnapura while separate incidents of assaults and property damage were reported in Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Mahiyanganaya and Weligama.

Preliminary reports from the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) indicate that UNP MPs and their supporters were the target of every reported incident with members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) being implicated in all instances with the exception of the Kurunegala attack.

Last January’s presidential polls were hailed as being one of the most peaceful elections in recent times resulting in Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya being heaped with plaudits for his decisive conduct in the build-up to elections and since. Yet by the end of the campaign period a total of 543 incidents of election violence and malpractice were reported including one murder, three attempted murders, 64 assaults and 11 cases of arson; peaceful perhaps by Sri Lankan standards but certainly not a clean break from bad habits.   

In that context, tension around nominations alone appears to be an early sample into the organised chaos set to descend on the island. The battle lines are no longer clearly drawn in the political sphere while matters of ‘national security’ no longer seem to be the most pressing issue in a Sri Lankan Parliamentary election. 

Swimming in this sea of uncertainty are volatile elements. The extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) party claims to have exchanged its stripes for scales and will be contesting under the cobra symbol as the Bodu Jana Peramuna (BJP). Their General Secretary - and firebrand at the heart of last year’s Aluthgama riots - the unceasingly vociferous Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera, claims that the party will be secular and open to individuals of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. 

More pressingly, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks to reverse his defeat and enter Parliament once again as a mere MP serving under a man he once referred to as “our idiot.” His chief concerns, as it was when he made his first grasp for the Presidency, appears centred on the LTTE. Rajapaksa’s election campaign is effectively underway having already made several tours to places of religious worship to deliver ethnically charged soapbox statements about “Eelamic foreign policy” and the like. 

It appears unclear at present just how these two volatile political forces will play off each other in the run-up to polls but at the least they have a common tactic of initiating their campaigns out of religious sites, as demonstrated by last year’s prolonged attack on a mosque in Grandpass which too was initiated from a temple. 

With the violence already underway, it therefore appears that all signs point towards escalation of election related violence, leaving Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya with the unenviable task of pulling off the same trick he did in January but on an even larger scale. Having consulted with the Attorney General, Deshapriya is already moving to expedite prosecutions of election law violations and it hoped that he will succeed. 

But the true path to a peaceful election lies in the hands of Sri Lanka’s politicians and more importantly with the people themselves. The Sri Lankan people must demand clean politics and reject those ‘leaders’ that are only just intelligent enough to advance their interests with violence. If Sri Lankans can unite in demanding a better class of governance, then perhaps they could also break old habits.