The Celebration of Democracy in Sri Lanka

James W. Arputharaj
President of South Asian Federalists; Former EC member of WFM; Coordinator for India for the Campaign for UN Parliamentary Assembly; Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

Where else can you watch people coming outside their homes in the evening of the Election Day to wave at the vehicles carrying the ballot boxes?

The Sri Lankan electorate is unique in many respects among the 7 South Asian neighbours. A very high literacy rate (96.3%) and highest score in the human development index (Sri Lanka has been classified under the “High Human Development” category, with a Human Development Index value of 0.770), top among the South Asian countries. While India ranks 130th (Economic Times), Bangladesh 136th and Pakistan 150th (medium HD category) amongst the 186 countries, Sri Lanka ranks 76th far above the other south Asian neighbours. (Lanka Business online, 2017).

The IMR of Sri Lanka is 8.4 deaths/1000 live births, while for India, it is 39; MMR for Sri Lanka is 30 (deaths per 1000) while for India it is 174. In 2011, the poverty levels of India was 21.9% of the population, while for Sri Lanka it is 6.7%. Comparably, Sri Lanka is much better off in the social indicators.

I thought I would write my observations after I had participated in the 2019 Presidential Election process as an International Election Observer sponsored by the ANFREL (Asian network for free elections) and given official EC Id. It was a sheer joy to watch the eagerness with which people participated in the election process. It was for the first time in the Sri Lankan history that no one lost life, except for one incident of gun fire near Mannar, the elections were held free and fair, thus peaceful. In 2005, while living in Sri Lanka, we launched a campaign through PAFFREL (People Association for Free and Fair Elections) called “Ballots not bullets” as there was a lot of election related violence then. The Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development did a research in 2003 and found out that though Sri Lankan literacy is high the participation of women in the governance as members of local governance bodies and Members of Parliament was hardly 7% mainly due to fear of gun-related violence during elections.

The recent Presidential election held on 16th November 2019 recorded 80% votes. In some polling booths the percentage of votes were as high as 97% and by noon half the ballots were cast. While campaigns in various forms happened on every single day, on the whole there were fewer cut-outs and advertisements due to environmental awareness. The people on the election day showed a lot of enthusiasm and fought to get their votes registered. In one case, when their photo ID was rejected by the Senior polling officer, a small group went to the Government agent (collector) office to get temporary ID and came back and voted. Rarely the polling stations were deserted.

The Chief of Polling stations – the senior polling officer (SPO) – 30 minutes before the polling opened, briefed the staff and party agents on the procedure that would be followed. All the party agents and staff were present well in time for the voting beginning at 7 am. The SPO turned the ballot box upside down to demonstrate that it is empty and sealed it in the presence of the agents and staff. The party agents pasted their id inside the boxes before they were sealed. The first polling officer (PO) checks the ID, the second checks the name on the voters list (he shouts the serial number and name so that the agents can tick off). The third one applies the ink, the fourth one hands over the ballot paper and the fifth officer stamps the ballot paper. The APO ensures that the ballot is stuffed into the box after the voter affixes the seal.

In the evening again the SPO checks if everyone agrees on the time 5 pm to close the polls. In the presence of others he closes and seals the ballot box. The SPO hands over the boxes to the Returning officer at the counting centre (located at a different place), while the agents check if this was the same box. Though the voting is completed at 5 pm, the counting process starts at 6 pm and by midnight the results trickled in.

When the ballot boxes are carried by buses (vans in some cases) the agents follow the vehicle and the  people in large numbers come outside their houses and wave at the vehicle. This is truly a celebration of democracy, with transparent process and participation of the people.

This was indeed a paradoxical election. The candidate who won campaigned for “security” and one wonders who would attack a small country like Sri Lanka devoid of oil reserves. The recent bombing of churches on Easter sent shock waves among the people and they were reminded of the war days, therefore they wanted to vote for a “strong” Government. The President was informed of the likely attack by the intelligence wing but failed to convey to the Government headed by the Prime Minister. Though it was not the fault of the UNP Government, people voted against this ruling party candidate.

Though one would argue that security of any country is of paramount interest, it is equally important to focus on attracting foreign investments by creating a climate of peace and tranquillity. Unemployment is rising and the economy is in doldrums. Sri Lanka had taken a large loan from China and unable to pay it, so had to pledge part of Sri Lanka, the Hambantota port, to China on a lease. About 80% of GDP goes towards debt servicing. During my exit interview many youth opined that jobs and investment in health care are of major importance to them than security. Butter versus Guns was the issue.

A group of Tamils were also dissatisfied with the Government as it did not fulfil the promise of devolution of power in the North and Eastern provinces, where the majority of Tamil Hindus and Muslims reside. Among the Sinhalese, there are no one following Hindu or Muslim faith. The majority community follow Buddhism (70.1%), followed by Hindus (12.6%), Muslims (9.7%) and Christians (7.4%). When asked about the devolution of power to an MP of the ruling party, he answered that his party, though implemented some kind of devolution of power, did not fully do so as the Sinhala majority would not like them to do so. It would amount to Sinhalese handing over power to Tamils, he said. When TNA (Tamil nationalist alliance) declared that they would vote for UNP candidate, the opposition campaigned that if Tamils are for UNP, Sinhalese should vote for them. Interestingly the new President took oath in Anuradhapura, where the Sinhala king defeated a Tamil Chola King. Therefore the devolution of power in the North and East would ever remain a myth. Even to this day not even one Tamil works for the Sri Lankan airlines and the discrimination of Tamils in employment with the Government continues.

I also had the privilege of meeting and discussing with the Buddhist Monk of the famous Kalutara Buddhist temple. I posed a question to him as to why the Sri Lankan Government does not want to invite His Holiness Dalai Lama. He answered that the Government does not want to hurt Chinese Government in any way, indicating that relationship with China is more important than anything else.

About 5 years back the people of Sri Lanka voted out the family rule of Rajapaksa, but they chose his younger brother in the hope that the family would have realised their mistakes in the earlier regime. But even before many of us as international observers could reach our homes, the news came out that Gota Rajapaksa's brother Mahinda was appointed as the new Prime Minister.

About 18 Million USD was spent on the Presidential election by the 5 main candidates according to CMEV (Centre for monitoring election violence). Unfortunately unlike India, Sri Lanka does not have any ceiling for election spendings and therefore the EC does not monitor. At the same time, the EC also does not monitor the media and the campaign for hate speeches if any. The Sunday Observer (Govt owned) daily commented on the day of election that “Padman” faces the “Terminator” in the elections.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa won by 52,25% of votes while Sajith Premadasa received 41.99%.

The Parliament elections are likely to be on 25 April 2020 and who knows whom the people may choose? But on the whole Tamil community continues to feel let down and the Muslim community feels alienated. While the majority of Sinhalese voted for Gotabaya, the other minorities voted for Sajith. Thus it is a divided verdict. It is doubtful that any leader would rise above as a statesman and unite the diverse communities in Sri Lanka.

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