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Colombo collective

Rajapaksa was defeated by the most broadbased coalition to date in Sri Lanka

Written by S Y Quraishi |
Updated: January 13, 2015 8:45:51 am

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Sri Lanka just concluded its sixth presidential election, which was as dramatic as it was landmark. The elections were held in a country with an authoritarian regime that had abolished all independent commissions, including the election commission. They were conducted by a government official designated as the commissioner of elections, with no power or control over the election bureaucracy and the police.

I observed these polls rather closely as the head of a 23-member observer delegation from the Association of Asian Election Authorities (AAEA), comprising 11 of the member countries, from Mongolia to the Maldives and Korea to Kazakhstan. The Commonwealth Observer Group, led by former president of Guyana Bharrat Jagdeo and a delegation from the Forum of the Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA) also monitored the poll, apart from several indigenous civil society groups.

The invitation sent out by the commission of elections to multiple observer groups was the first sign of a credible election. Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya seemed assured that his poll machinery, including the police, would pull off a free and fair election, despite its inherent lack of powers. Opposition parties also seemed to have confidence in his fairness, which was reassuring.

The proactive involvement of three major civil society organisations, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) and the Centre for Monitoring Electoral Violence (CMEV) was a good barometer of civic freedom. They were vocal and aggressive while constantly analysing the situation and campaign trends, including complaints of violence, intimidation of voters and abuse of state machinery. A constant refrain was that the army had been blatantly used to intimidate voters and stop them from going to vote — it had set up 400-500 road blocks. There were also allegations of discrimination directed at the police, which apparently registered cases against the opposition and not against the ruling party, and at the government’s distribution of food items in the name of flood relief.

However, the election commission and the police assured that no intimidation would be allowed on polling day. We despatched observers to all corners of the island. I travelled more than 1,200 km over four days, covering almost all of the former war zone in the north. I did not see a single roadblock by the army. Nor did anyone else from our team. So were the allegations of intimidation false or exaggerated? Or did the presence of high-profile observers act as a deterrent to what had been happening earlier? The way the election commission pleaded with me to travel extensively in the northern area and deploy the most observers there pointed to the latter. The commissioner later confirmed this.

The fact that nearly all the officers posted in those districts were Tamil seemed proof enough that no intimidation of Tamil minorities would be possible, and neither was it intended. Our conversations with them reaffirmed our comfort with the poll machinery. In India, we have seen how the ruling parties try to instal loyalists in the critical posts, particularly those of district magistrate and superintendent of police, ahead of the elections.

Voter enthusiasm was high. As many as 81.52 per cent of 15 million eligible persons voted. The operation was managed, as in India, by the bureaucracy, and about two lakh officials were deployed, besides 72,000 police and security personnel.

The defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the victory of Maithripala Sirisena were swift and dramatic developments. Till a couple of months ago, Rajapaksa was so much in command, he was reported to have said that he would be contesting against himself in a shadow-boxing match. Then suddenly he was hit by the proverbial bolt from the blue. Out of nowhere, his close aide and minister for health, also a Buddhist and from a rural area, defected and was declared the common candidate of the entire opposition.

The challenge grew stronger by the day and the results seemed inevitable. The incumbent president just could not recover from the shock of the secret opposition plan. We were told that they had used communication tools like Viber and WhatsApp, technologies the rulers could not penetrate, despite every opposition leader having been under surveillance.

We also heard that the president had decided to go for a mid-term poll, a full two years and two months before the end of his tenure, on the advice of his astrologer. The calculation, reportedly, was that if he won, he would first complete his remaining term (allowed by the recently amended constitution) and then take charge for the new six-year term. That old proverb, “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush”, would never have been proved so right.

Rajapaksa was banking on a fractured opposition, especially a deeply divided United National Party. But the idea of a common opposition candidate, though mooted over a year ago, snowballed once the election was announced. A stream of defections followed. According to the Daily News, an overnight turncoat newspaper itself, the support of the Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress turned the opposition into the broadest political coalition in Sri Lanka to date, cutting across party, ethnic and religious boundaries. Tamils constitute 15 per cent, Muslims 10 per cent and Christians 6 per cent of the coalition, and their unity proved to be the decisive factor.

The genesis of the rise of the dictatorial Rajapaksa — and his eventual downfall — was in the infamous 18th amendment to the constitution, dating back to October 2010, which gave him total power over all organs of governance, including the judiciary, and ended the limit of two tenures for the president. The unique provision that he could seek the people’s mandate before the end of the term and yet complete the existing term before starting the new one, particularly, proved to be his undoing. Everyone was angered by the extension he gave himself. It was compounded by blatant nepotism, through which his three brothers, his sons and nephews controlled every crucial department. Along with the large-scale corruption charges, these discontents far outweighed the nation’s gratitude for the “war” victory of 2009.

The peaceful transition of power initially surprised everyone. Contrary to widespread speculation, the change of guard was quick and peaceful. The way Rajapaksa accepted the verdict even before all the votes had been counted, and left the presidential residence and office, looked extremely dignified. There are whispers, however, that other “possible options” had been contemplated but got no support from the key players. The spokesman of the new president has called it a coup attempt that will be investigated. The new president took the oath of office within six hours.

A very touching personal moment for me, and India, was when Deshapriya announced the results in the presence of the incoming president and prime minister holding my book, An Undocumented Wonder: the Making of the Great Indian Election, and quoting Gopal Gandhi’s sentence — among the many great things that India has, three are most important: the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi and an electoral democracy. Deshapriya prayed that the Indian model would be emulated and pleaded for constitutional powers like his Indian counterparts’.

Tailpiece: The country is abuzz with speculation about the future of the “royal” astrologer. Many other astrologers have gone into overdrive to find the answer.

The writer, former chief election commissioner of India, was head of an international observers’ team. Views are personal and not necessarily shared by the team
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