Opinion: For Sri Lanka's governing coalition, victory is not without loss

Editor's note: The author, a scholar and member of Lanka Solidarity, has chosen to write anonymously for security purposes.

On April 9th, the governing coalition, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), claimed to win a majority of parliamentary seats in the general election on April 8. But their stated victory is not without loss.

When I picture free and fair elections, I imagine traveling to my designated polling center at the hour that best suits my schedule, not at the hour that would be most likely to be less unsafe. I imagine that the polling center would be equipped with the necessary documentation and safety measures so that I could cast my vote without physical or mental intimidation. I imagine that the surrounding areas would be free of any political propaganda or persons urging me to decide in their party’s favor. I imagine casting my ballot without the possibility of being watched, followed or harassed. I imagine feeling neither intimidated nor afraid for my life and going home feeling confident that my vote will be counted fairly and according to democratic principles.

My image is quite different than the reality that took place on April 8, when Sri Lankans voted for their first parliament since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) recorded 413 election-related incidents of violence prior to Thursday and 286 incidents of violence and malpractice on election day itself. In Central province’s Nawalapitiya, a group of UPFA supporters took the identity and polling cards away from Tamil voters preventing them from voting. In Trincomalee, a mob unlawfully entered a polling center and stole a majority of the ballot papers. As a result of both incidents, a re-poll must take place in Nawalapitiya, and the votes of the Trincomalee electorate have been deemed invalid.

Island-wide election results have yet to be released because of these malpractices. Even so, the governing coalition prefers to celebrate victory rather than reassure the people of Sri Lanka that these violations of democracy will be handled accordingly and with justice.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in Sri Lanka reports that as of March 11, 2010, an estimated 88,198 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still living in camps in Vavuniya. On election day, People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) reported that Vavuniya IDPs claimed to receive neither appropriate guidelines to vote nor legitimate means of transport to their designated polling centers. At press, Sri Lanka’s Department of Elections announced that out of the 32,422 displaced voters registered in Vavuniya district, only 20,493 of the votes were valid. Overall, CMEV estimated the nationwide voter turnout to be 50 to 55 percent, the lowest voter turnout recorded in the country since the 1988 presidential elections.

While the numbers indicate a fall in election-related violence since January’s presidential election, it is clear that democracy in Sri Lanka is still under threat. The possibility of re-engaging the electoral process gave initial hope that the space for dissent and reconciliation was widening.

But in the weeks following the re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government arrested and detained opposing candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, and later tried him in military court. In February, the president dissolved parliament and called for general elections in an effort to secure a two-thirds majority and strengthen his own victory. In March, the president re-convened parliament in order to extend emergency laws, despite declaring the country free from terrorism and war for almost a year. Between January and April, journalists and human rights defenders were still being threatened and detained for being traitors. It was under these conditions of fear and exception that the citizens of Sri Lanka cast their “free and fair” vote on Thursday.

Since May 2009, the government has taken no significant or far-reaching action to address the root causes of civil conflict — namely the absence of a viable political solution that addresses the claims and rights of all communities. Instead, state-sponsored efforts to centralize power and further militarize civil society have flourished, while meaningful dialogues about ensuring social justice and reconciliation have fallen to the sidelines.

The president claims that a political solution to the national question must take a back seat to economic growth and development. At present, luxury hotels in the north’s war-torn Jaffna are being planned and an airport and highway are being constructed in the south’s Hambantota district. But what must be understood is that Sri Lanka needs to first develop and reconstruct the mentalities of the people, which have been damaged by years of continual violence, corruption and emergency rule.

Sri Lankans — whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Malay, Burgher, or Muslim — are afraid to question those elites in power. For, in Sri Lanka, the authority of the elites tends to lie not in legitimacy, but in the hegemonic ability to intimidate and silence those who dissent. What do these conditions hold for the state of democracy and justice in Sri Lanka?

On April 22, the new parliament is set to convene and in the meantime, victory may be celebrated. But for those progressives in solidarity to see positive social and political change in postwar Sri Lanka, the proceedings of this general election are not without slight to the principles of democracy and justice.