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Absence of a Minimally Safe Environment for Elections in North

“The next time they give you all that civic bullshit about voting, keep in mind that Hitler was elected in a full, free, democratic election.” — George Carlin 

“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.” — T. S. Eliot  

Meaningful elections require that voters feel secure enough to exercise their franchise without external pressure or coercion. The presence of an occupational army, the continuation of curfews, the tangible influence wielded by armed paramilitary elements (some of whose friends are candidates) and the militarization of every nook and cranny of civic life are hardly conducive to the free and fair expression of the Jaffna residents’ sacred right to vote. The overall environment in Vavuniya is hardly different. 

It is no surprise that already some non-militarized contestants have received death threats, and others are not permitted to campaign freely in these areas. The election monitoring bodies are tallying up incidents of violence and violations, but these scores are not even the tip of the iceberg. The absence of a viable opposition to the state is a function of military force and political Machiavellism. This election is a travesty precisely because it disadvantages all those who have not taken up arms during the last two decades and do not plan to do so in the near future. 

The government has got its priorities all wrong. Inexcusable delays in re-settling IDPs and the absence of a rapid programme of de-militarization of the former conflict areas must be the first step in restoring confidence and security to the Tamil people who have suffered decades of trauma.

A survey just concluded by Social Indicator identifies that of 880 respondents selected from all 23 Wards of the Jaffna Municipal Council, 38% felt there had been no change in their economic condition or quality of life even after the successful conclusion of the war. In fact, roughly 30% felt that the situation had actually deteriorated since last year.

Yet, ground conditions have certainly changed for other political-cum-military parties, especially those that supported the government in its war against the LTTE. This election appears to be a quick reward for them for services rendered. With the basic conditions not being conducive to proper campaigning these groups are having a field day. The government has made it difficult if not impossible for groups outside its fold to canvass for votes, while at the same time including under its coalition umbrella other parties with chequered political histories. Election Monitoring Groups would do well to remind the southern public of the past performance of these groups. The people in the north could not have forgotten so easily.

While it is true that some members of the TNA may have voiced opinions sympathetic to the LTTE and that they have obviously been subjected to coercion, this certainly does not legitimise the pro-government paramilitary parties or those who were armed but less visibly part of the government apparatus. The point here is not to question the choices that were made by different groups and individuals but to object in principle to the unfair advantage that the government and its allies have when an election is conducted under the prevailing ground conditions.

The results of these two relatively minor (for us in the south, at least) elections are a foregone conclusion because the government has ensured that no truly independent voice will be heard. Nor are voters able to exercise their franchise independently in the current context. The people, judging from opinion polls and ad hoc responses, are basically apathetic to the outcome because they see no change in the inevitable process (followed by successive southern regimes) of marginalising and trivialising them.

They are just called upon to provide the numbers, and if they are unwilling to swell the government ballots, others more adept and experienced in these matters will be only too willing to do so on their behalf.

The people of Jaffna and Vavuniya have much more pressing problems than to provide mascara for the state’s make-up operation that all’s well in the north now. The Social Indicator survey of Jaffna residents indicated that over 12% had relatives living in IDP camps, which is bound to be much higher for those living in Vavuniya. Over 40% said they had no interest at all in Sri Lankan politics, and when you realise that nearly 30% had no idea of who was contesting the MC election, this is no shock.

At the end of the war are we merely rewinding our political history to the point where the EPDP controlled the Jaffna peninsula with an iron extra-judicial fist, counting on more than a little help from the armed forces. Has nothing but the demise of the LTTE changed in the political landscape of the north? Are we continuing to disenfranchise these populations in all but name, as we have done during the 25 years of conflict?

What excuse do we have now for not creating the minimal conditions required to make such elections meaningful? What justification is there for putting token elections before basic needs and fundamental rights? The war is over but the guns still reign over hundreds of thousands of people of this country, many of whom are still systematically deprived of living without fear and tension. The government appears to still want both its military victory as well as to continue reaping the benefits of war and militarisation. The key benefit in this case appears to be not having to bother about real democratic processes. This policy, if we can call it that, is short-sighted and self-defeating: paradoxically, it is the best way to keep the LTTE alive even after it has been decimated.









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