Reflections on Democracy, Elections and Sri Lanka
Winding roads wend their way around tea-estates, and one gasps at the beauty of the hill vistas that are revealed at every other bend. Lush green hills, small rapids and cascading waterfalls punctuate the view. With the small cottages that are everywhere, this is a picture out of one’s kindergarten art portfolio.
Driving through the estates, one occasionally gets close enough to look inside the homes of estate workers. They are poor and lack the most basic facilities. We passed one maternity clinic that was at the bottom of a steep lane. It was hard to imagine a woman in labour walking down there, particularly in the rainy season.
The electoral district of Badulla is full of such contrasts. Badulla itself is an ugly little town, where even the occasional glimpse of the hills does not redeem the view. It has that overgrown, under-planned, messy aspect of so many South Asian mofussil towns. Buildings and other locations seem to tumble into each other, just leaving enough room for people, animals, bicycles and the large minivans and jeeps that tear through South Asian roads to pass. The continuing process of construction and erosion has replaced the new roads of independent Sri Lanka with newer obstacle courses of potholes and puddles. The ubiquitous clock-tower of Sri Lanka’s urban landscapes keeps a time that no one seems to heed. But the people of Badulla are warm and welcoming.
One and a half hours to the south is Ella, which must be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Description cannot do Ella justice. From the gap in the hills at Ella, it is said that one can see all the way to the Indian Ocean. From time to time, clouds hang low over the gap, making one feel as though one sits in a beautiful kingdom above the clouds. The clouds shift, revealing lower and lower hills and a valley that is just beautiful. The valley has a special place in the Indian imagination. It is said to be the place of Sita’s incarceration by Ravana and locals can point to the tunnel that led to Ravana’s palace, the hill-side that was forever effaced by Hanuman’s wrath and the Asoka trees that dot the hills around Sita Eliya. Looking out at the stunning view, one knows that mythology is the only fitting tribute that humans can pay to the artist that composed this scene.
The drive from Ella to Badulla is hilly. One passes several large estates and some small towns. The former are hard to miss with their sign-boards, their occasional fencing and of course, the tea bushes that are everywhere. The small towns however, are signaled by the occasional ‘kadé’ and if one drives past at the speed our driver did, one could miss them entirely.
Driving out of Badulla in the other direction towards Mahiyangana, the hills give way soon to flat and arid areas. This is country that was irrigated by the Mahaweli project. Our translator who has driven through the most spectacular stretches in silence, is suddenly animated and waxes poetic about the Mahaweli project. To his eyes, this is the prettiest thing we have seen so far. In sharp contrast to the unstudied and careless beauty of the hill areas, the canals and vegetation of the Mahaweli project are neat and tidy stretches of straight lines and smooth edges. But our translator is correct. To people starved for water, there can be nothing more beautiful than this human endeavour to quench their thirst.
We drive into Mahiyangana. If you effaced the Sinhala writing on the signs, you could be anywhere in South Asia. Flat, dry and dusty. I know that I know this place well. This is the country of Basanti, Dhanno and Gabbar Singh, and I can see Hema Malini driving by in her tanga. The very distant hills must be the home of Gabbar Singh and his band of dacoits. I blink and the image changes. I see women in nav-vaari sarees sashaying through the street where we stand. The local Patil’s son eyes them lecherously and with his encouragement, his cronies start to harrass the women. He saunters out to challenge the most outspoken (and beautiful) of the women, and the plot of another Marathi movie opens. But look, there is Rajnikanth, arriving like an avenging angel, accompanied by other Indian film heroes, to bring justice and retribution to the bad guys in this tired, hot little town…
It is hot enough in the plains to be delusional.
But the discussion of evil dacoits and avenging angels is not entirely out of place. Our team of election observers has traveled to this unlikely destination precisely because everyone expects the worst election violence and fraud to be perpetrated in this electorate of Badulla district.
In our last minute trail through Badulla looking for clues as to the election situation here, one word has appeared on everyone’s lips: Mahiyangana. The district police have imported an officer from Colombo especially for the four days surrounding the election. The Returning Officer for Badulla takes pains to inform us that we have no locus standi with the Election Commissioner, but manages to convey this one thing to us: Mahiyangana is the place to watch. The people at the hotels we have stayed in tell us that there is no problem in Badulla, but Mahiyangana is another matter. Mahiyangana. To my fanciful mind, even the name, with its partial resemblance to Mahishasura sounds ominous. The swift, smooth transition from the enchantment of the hills to the severity of the plains seems to score the drama of this story.
The two of us that constituted the team of international observers sent by People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) stumbled into this with minimal preparation. Having been assigned this district late on the 6th, we arrived late on the 7th in Badulla, with nary a clue as to the district, its politics and its problems. As I have learned on this trip, there are two categories of observers that are used in such an exercise: long-term observers who typically spend at least a fortnight in the area, often much more time, and election day observers like ourselves who simply show up at the very last minute. Obviously, the utility of the latter depends a great deal then on the intelligence already gathered by the local coordinators and on the latter’s level of organization. Unfortunately, a series of logistical problems on the one hand, and the fact that our local coordinators were away conducting training programs for volunteers the day after we arrived, meant that we were left, late in the day to figure things out for ourselves.
The one thing we were able to figure out was that Mahiyangana was the problem electorate in this area. This was the one area that defiantly voted in the United National Party candidate in the last election and everyone ‘knew’ that the People’s Alliance MP would do anything to salvage his reputation by winning that seat, whatever it took. From this kernel of truth, spun hundreds of stories—all true, all false, in some measure.
As we drove through Mahiyangana on the eve of the election, the air was thick with rumour. At every turn and every stop, every little ‘boutique’ and kadé (little shops), people had stories to tell us. Campaign rallies had been held after the last day for campaigning had passed. Who would (or could) stop them? Candidates had filed police complaints of intimidation against each other. The fact that the UNP candidate and a senior police official shared the same name added a further twist to one of these stories. Both charged that the other had made death-threats, and both had denied the charges. By the accounts of other international observers in the area, they sat in offices across from each other, armed to the teeth, gun poised to shoot. But both denied charges of having threatened the other, and a surprise late night raid on their homes and offices the night before the election yielded nothing, according to the police. Gun-shots had been heard, and investigations showed that they had been fired in the air by supporters of either side. They were stories of 200 thugs who had been brought in buses from Colombo to incite violence and to help rig the election. At one stop, we heard from the men standing around the store that several people had been hurt in election-related shootings and arson and had been admitted to the hospital.
We had stopped at the police station and obtained a list of polling-stations in areas where incidents had occurred and where violence was expected. They appeared to be in two clusters and we chose to go to the one closest to us since it was already late in the day and we had been told repeatedly that we should get out of the electorate by no later than 4 or 5 o’clock.
One of these had not seen an incident-free election day since 1994. We heard this from people we chatted with on the way. We heard this from the presiding officer and his assistant. Indeed, the reputation of the area as a trouble-spot had ensured that three senior officers had refused the posting to this polling-station, leaving him, a junior person, to handle the day on his own. His face was drawn, his brow knit tightly, he played nervously with his hands, and smiled weakly at us. His assistant was categorical: we should spend time at their station the next day.
Earlier in Colombo, I could understand the skepticism expressed by people I met about the whole business (‘racket’ was their word) of election observation. Standing in that polling station, I understood that our presence, impotent as it might otherwise be, was a source of confidence to people in very trying circumstances. That while we might not be able to stand between him and a cascade of bullets, and that while our accounts and observations might amount to nothing, in that moment that we stood and bore witness to his situation, we were being useful. I began to understand the utility of our being visible. We were there, and even if that would not prevent the worst from happening, we could bear witness to the anxiety that preceded it and to the event itself, should it occur and we survive. Perhaps what occurred would stop short of the worst by virtue of our presence as foreigners.
Their faces haunted me. We returned the following morning and then in the afternoon to watch them close the election. An absent-minded error had us in the wrong polling-station fifteen minutes before closing, and a cross-country steeplechase was what it took to get to the station we actually meant to be at one minute short of closing time. By the time we went in, they were closing off and sealing the ballot-boxes. But the relief was palpable. The presiding officer looked like a different person altogether. He was smiling and relaxed. As we watched them put things together and load the vans, a dreadful tension lifted from the pit of my stomach. Their tension and anxiety had got to me more than I had realized. As we had hurtled towards this station, I had fought the horrible images that flashed through my head of these nice gentlemen blown to bits and ballots bathed in blood lying everywhere. Here they were, smiling in relief that they had survived the day. As we had.
In spite of all the horrors anticipated in this cluster of villages and polling-stations, we had witnessed almost pastoral scenes of democracy at work in South Asia. Confined to reporting what we saw in our 10-15 minutes at each polling station, we filed report after report that conditions in and around the polling stations were normal. However, it did not take long-term observation or particular insight to understand that things were anything but normal in Mahiyangana.
Again, sceptics in Colombo had talked about the creation of a fear psychosis and suggested that there was almost a vested interest in making the elections seem more violent than they were. Driving around Badulla before the election, I had considered our own culpability in creating such conditions. After all, people like us were driving around asking, ‘How are things here?’ Anyone with experience in human conversation can predict the rest of the exchange.
"How are things here?"
"Okay… I suppose."
"Well, some things have happened."
"What has happened?"
"Oh… some people came and threatened some people here."
"How did they threaten them? Did they have guns?"
"Who were they? Were they from this area?"
"Were some of them from outside?"
"Were they local or outsiders?"
"Some were local and some were outsiders."
One of the major parties is named. At this point, consensus among those standing around fails. In the discussion of which party was responsible and the discussion of each other’s credibility, we see reason to doubt the story. As short-term observers, we do not have the time to investigate each story.
We come back that way in an hour and stop again for a moment. We are surrounded by some of the same people, and a few new ones. Since our last visit, shots have been fired in the air. When we come back in an hour, someone will have been injured.
People don’t lie. In the one hundred recensions of this story that will have been narrated by the time the election ends, there will always be a kernel of truth. Something did happen, although we cannot determine exactly what. However, the other more salient truth is that with each act of narration, the anxiety and intimidation increase. Each time we ask what happened, each time we inadvertently repeat what happened (as our local companions were wont to) or what we had just heard, we contributed to the fears surrounding the election process.
On the other hand, our reporting format did not allow us to state anywhere that people were very tense. This meant that those who were compiling the election day reports in Colombo were going to read into our brief tabular account none of the apprehension that had marked the day in Mahiyangana.
We were also limited by being in the field for a very short time. There was no time either to build the kind of trust that would have permitted people to talk to us or to develop the instincts for what to believe in that context and what to disregard. Moreover, we had communication problems even with a translator in tow. Thus it was possible for us to visit a polling-station where the supporters of a particular candidate had driven and issued threats to the polling and police officers, and not see or hear a word of it. What we saw was a perfectly normal station, with no incidents and with long rows of smiling people waiting to vote. We asked a couple of questions but were told all was well. As we had driven in and out, some men had stopped to chat with us. They did tell us what had happened, but in that climate, and given that they were drunk, we did not believe them. We did believe the account given to us by the Assistant Superintendent of Police when we met him later. However, we had visited the Mahiyangana police station just before we ran into the ASP, and the officer in charge said nothing had happened in the last few hours. So it is worth asking, we report what we see: but what do we see?
Other observers were also adding to the climate of fear. As we drove around Mahiyangana at one point, we ran into some PAFFREL observers from Kandy who had crossed over to have lunch. They regaled us with stories of men in ski masks who were threatening to attack observers. We were cautioned to leave Mahiyangana as early as possible. But we had promised the presiding officers at that polling station that we would return and we were determined to stay until polls closed. All the local observers had been asked to bring their reports in by 4 and it was imperative that we remain in the area. I have a greater appreciation in retrospect of how scary this must have been for the locals. In that moment, I could not see beyond the task at hand, but really, for those who have to live with the consequences of their activism on election day, this is just another election. And beyond a point, the risk is not worthwhile.
There is also good news about the Sri Lankan elections.
South Asians are very self-critical and given the impasse with regard to the ethnic conflict, it is easy for Sri Lankans to couch their discussions about their country in terms of pessimism and optimism. But a look from the outside does suggest that there are many things for them, and others of us as South Asians, to take great pride in.
Many Sri Lankans I spoke to questioned the legitimacy of having elections in a state which is at war with a significant percentage of its people. What does such an election mean? Does it simply legitimize the power of the state? Does it amount to a referendum on the conflict-related policies of the state? Further, if that is so, does a high turnout signify the same thing as a vote that support the policies of the present government? More fundamentally, if the election process it will simply legitimize the activities of the government and moreover it is flawed, then is there any remaining value in whatever sort of democracy that such an election represents? It is hard to disagree with these views when one considers what has been happening in the North over the last few years. Towns have been reduced to rubble and people have been displaced in the thousands. Winning back territory from the LTTE-controlled areas does not appear to have much meaning in the circumstances and its only consequence appears to be to further alienate Tamils.
However, if democracy—and elections in particular—have become a meaningless ritual in Sri Lanka, I would still have to applaud the tenacity with which Sri Lankans hold on to rituals that have proven so easy to abandon in other contexts. Even ritual elections have their importance. In going through the motions of seeking election, the elite commit themselves at least in public to certain codes of behaviour and accept certain restraints on the exercise of their power (for instance, that they will observe the rules regarding transfer of power). The continuance of the ritual is a reminder to the voters that they have some stake in a system that may otherwise seem alien to them. Finally, and most importantly, the flawed nature of the ritual is itself a reminder of what should be. It provides a focus for activity in civil society and thus becomes a vehicle of political mobilization. All of the hundreds of local election volunteers and observers are the political participants of today and tomorrow. By their training and their experience, they have now been socialized to ideas of how the elections and by extension, Sri Lankan democracy should run. Keeping a flawed election process is better than abandoning the exercise altogether in favour of something more ascriptive and/or arbitrary.
The second piece of good news is that Sri Lankans turn out to vote in amazing numbers. The final voter turn-out in the Parliamentary elections was 75%. In the areas where on election eve, we were hearing horrible reports of violence and intimidation from people and where every prognoses pointed to mayhem, people came to polling stations bright and early and cast their vote. In some stations, when we walked in as early as 10:30 or 11 in the morning, we were told that 70 or 80 percent of the registered voters had already come in. This meant that the chances of others coming in to steal their vote were reduced considerable. More critically, it meant that 70 to 80 percent cared enough to come in and vote in spite of everything they expected could happen to that vote. And to themselves, for that matter. This sense of ownership over the system is the ultimate defence against attempts by any political regime to subvert the democratic process.
Of course, this paean to Sri Lankan political participation must be qualified. In some instances, high turnout figures must be attributed to impersonation and ballot-stuffing. In Jaffna for instance, there were more votes than actual voters, according to the Tamil United Liberation Front, which has challenged that election. In Batticaloa, PAFFREL observers reported that impersonation was highly systematic and organized and girls as young as 16 were standing in line to vote. Polling cards were being sold in tea-shops. On the other hand, in Trincomalee, there may have been high turn-out among some communities, but polling-stations in the Tamil areas were not always accessible. Observers were told, ‘The Sinhalese and Muslims are voting for their government.’
In the face of the voter turnout, it is hard to make a categorical pronouncement on the elections. On the one hand, the fact that most voters are engaged enough to defy those trying to intimidate them makes the prevalent levels of violence and malpractice even more outrageous than they are intrinsically. On the other hand, to write off an election or an electoral process completely because of the violence and malpractice seems to ignore the extraordinary citizenship of ‘ordinary’ voters outside of the battle zones.
The third reason to celebrate Sri Lankan democracy is the engagement of non-governmental organizations and networks in holding the government accountable. Not in Colombo, but in the districts, those who volunteer to conduct voter education programs, those who report, record and monitor incidents of violence, those who observe the polling and those who contribute to the civil rights movement in other ways, are the backbone of this effort. Both PAFFREL and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence rely on local organizations to carry out their election monitoring programs. These local volunteers who have their finger on the pulse of their districts are indispensable. They are also very courageous since they have to live with the consequences of their activism. Their casual, everyday heroism keeps local politicians/thugs on their toes. To the extent that they continue to be engaged and active, there is another generation, another cadre of Sri Lankans in whose hands the culture of democracy may flourish.
One concern that many of the observers had as we turned in our reports was that they would add up to an endorsement of an election that we had reservations about. Would we end up rubber-stamping an election that, in spite of everything I just wrote, was just not quite right? On the day we returned to Colombo from our various field stations, there was considerable agitation and anguish at the prospect.
Nothing is ‘normal’ in Sri Lanka. ‘Normal’ has an entirely different meaning in a place that has lived in the shadow of civil war for almost two decades. The proliferation of checkpoints, the omnipresence of security officers, the background hum of aircraft and air raid signals that people who visit the North and East report, the presence and easy availability of former army and police personnel trained in the use of firearms and the easy justification of silence and censorship on grounds of security—none of these are ‘normal.’ Furthermore, while most Sri Lankans may not discuss these things everyday, they are aware that their lives have been changed fundamentally by the conditions in which they live.
In the circumstances, can we expect a ‘normal’ election? The Election Commissioner implied something similar when he said on the 12th of October that by the standards of the developing world, this was not such a bad election. Must citizens of this world then contentedly lower their standards? Likewise, must those who live in times of war abandon all hope of free and fair elections, and elections without violence? Is it not even more important at such times that those who make life-and-death decisions for the rest of the population be elected in such a manner as to truly represent the will of the people? The voters of Sri Lanka have shown that they understand their part in the preservation of their democratic structures. Must they concede lower standards to their politicians who do not seem to share their understanding?
The unfairness of the process, and the EC’s pronouncement, did not fail to strike observers who returned from Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee in particular. All of us, however, share the concern about our role in legitimizing a process and an outcome about which we have doubts.
In the last week or two, I have given more thought to elections and what they represent than I ever did before this.
Sri Lanka is not an exception. In my own country, equally horrendous things happen during elections. For every Kandy, there is a Meham. For every Jaffna, there is a Kashmir. The size of India seems to swallow up these stories. The miracle remains the continued functioning of that gargantuan system in the face of its numbers, distances and problems. That surely applies to Sri Lanka as well. On the other hand, there seems to be greater outrage in Sri Lanka than in India where, for people outside the affected area, any such incidents become remote and irrelevant.
The larger problem is with societies that are brutalized by continuing conflict and states that have become quicker to use force. On a visit to Kandy, during a police briefing, we were told that the ongoing war meant that the police force (available constables) had shrunk. On the other hand, we also learned that police offices on duty had recognized several faces in a mob as belonging to men who had been discharged on a variety of grounds from the police force. Add to this, those who have deserted or been discharged from the armed forces, and the numbers of those available and able, for a price, to incite a mob or to carry out violent acts, swell.
Further, when a society is desensitized to news of violent acts, on the part of the state and others, people are able to ignore small, everyday acts of violence that snowball into larger, planned action, as we witnessed during the elections. Tolerance for the small acts does not extend to these, but it is harder to constrain the monster at this stage.
Our drive back to Colombo retraces our steps from Ella to Badulla to Mahiyangana, before we take the Kandy Road back. As we pass the estates, hills and waterfalls, it is hard to believe that less than a day ago, things were so tense here. The tea-bushes, the hills, the trees, the waterfalls and the creeks are untouched and unaltered by all the human drama that takes place in their shadow. The curfew overnight seems to continue into the day. Most shops have their shutters down—discretion is the better part of valour. Kandy’s busy market streets are quiet and the road to Colombo is virtually deserted.
Spent and exhausted, Sri Lanka recovers from the elections.