STRATEGIES to hold a free and fair local government election is being discussed between the Elections Commissioner and political parties for the umpteenth time. Every election is preceded by such talks and pledges from the politicians and Police to work together to ensure that democracy prevails, but the reality more often than not ends up disappointing.
According to the present plans all illegal banners and cut-outs will be removed by the Police before 2 March. While this is a difficult task to carry out in itself, the political interference makes it more so. Even though there is a wish to stick to the legal parameters, politicians have also come up with fabulous mechanisms to creep through the loopholes of the law. For example, in previous elections there were many billboards around the country advertising the development programmes done by the Government and there can be no doubt that this was a ploy to influence voters.
The situation is made even worse by the Elections Commissioner going on the record saying that he does not have the power to control the State media and ensure that they follow legal guidelines when providing publicity to politicians and their campaigns. The Sri Lankan chapter of Transparency International during the last presidential and general elections documented the abuse of State property, totalling in the billions. A significant amount came from organisations that were politically affiliated, showing how deeply party influence is used in Sri Lanka.
While some may present the argument that this money is released to the larger economy and therefore the harm is lessened, it is important to remember that a government exists to regulate. Abuse means that State money that should by right be used for the benefit of the people is actually wasted on political campaigns. Moreover, these blatant misuses are not only allowed to go unpunished but the public have become so inured to them that they are hardly noticed. The truth is ugly, but Sri Lankans after encountering it repeatedly for so many years can identify it and perhaps deal with it better by enforcing their will to do what the strict word of law cannot.
But how can this be done? True, the Local Government election is small fry in the arena of national politics, but great results have come from small beginnings. Voter interest is already at low ebb, yet what would really make an impact is if the people show the candidates that they will vote for those who respect the law and democracy. By rallying around the candidates who truly respect the law and abide by it, the public can show that they take free and fair elections seriously.
Conventional political practices are too deeply rooted to be upturned overnight. The first attempt may not make much of an impact, but it will give the chance for a revolution of sorts to take place among the people and hopefully, eventually the candidates. Changing people’s attitudes can take a long time or a moment – the events in the Middle East have proved that; now it is time for Sri Lankans to decide whether they want change too.