Elections or no elections, the tragic consequences of political anarchy

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As South Africa readies itself for an election result poised to dislodge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) from a comfortable majority perch in an unprecedented turn of events and India’s general elections winds down with results to be announced in the coming days, both these nations and their peoples can afford to boast, despite whatever drawbacks, of maintaining the integrity of the electoral process.

A proposal that will spill blood onto the streets

In abrupt contrast, Sri Lanka’s pre-election games reached a disgraceful low with the General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP) proposing a few days ago that pending Presidential elections should be postponed and the term of the current President and the Parliament be instead extended for two years. His suggestion was less than coherent in explaining as to why constitutional mandates should be summarily dispensed of, other than parrot that the country’s ‘stability’ must be preserved.

Rather piquantly, he buttressed this suggestion by saying that a referendum can be held to ask the people what they thought, as this was a ‘democratic’ method. As to how ruling politicians who fight shy of holding due elections on the premise that they cannot win, may repose hope in a referendum that will inevitably cause carnage amongst the populace remains a puzzler. In the wake of the uproar that this outrageous claim has led to, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has murmured reassuringly that the Presidential elections will be held on schedule.

But these Presidential reassurances have not led to a cooling down of tempers with members of his UNP defensively squirming to distance themselves from the proposal. And distance they should with a vengeance. For the offending suggestion in question was not thrown casually by the General Secretary by way of political rhetoric at a party meeting. Rather, this was a formal media conference held at the party headquarters. The logical if not necessary inference is that the proposal did not emanate from his undeniably asinine mind alone.

Weeping, wailing and
gnashing of teeth

Thus, though his fellow UNP party mates conveniently attempted to categorise this as his ‘personal views,’ that is a nonsensical explanation. In fact, this only speaks to the fundamental dysfunction of the UNP itself if its foremost office bearer is merrily permitted to indulge in such patently unconstitutional ‘personal views’ at his whim and fancy. Indeed, if that is the case (to give the devil its due), the General Secretary must be censured for the damage done to the potential presidency of his party leader, no more and no less.

In other respects, the political establishment reacted negatively with the President’s (disgruntled) parliamentary support crutch, the Rajapaksa-led ‘Pohottuwa’ party vehemently rejecting the idea and along with it, any potential parliamentary support that might be garnered. Of course, that is not to dismiss the possibility of a faction of the ‘Pohottuwa’ coming out in support of what is coming to be known as the ‘UNP proposal to postpone elections.’ Meanwhile, the main Opposition parties wept, wailed and gnashed their collective teeth, threatening political chaos if such an option is even contemplated.

Civil activists and election monitors have also dismissed the proposal with contempt, recalling the postponement of local government elections under this Presidency on the grounds of ‘no funds.’ As we may remember, this was in direct defiance of a judicial directive following which, the President made less than subtle references to ‘obstacles’ being created to his leadership. At each and every point thereafter, whether it was the domestic debt restructuring process or the highly controversial passage of the Online Safety Act in the House, the Presidential calling out of the judiciary whether directly or through statements issued by the Presidential Secretariat continued.

The constitutional mandate of the Election Commission

In that cautionary backdrop, the President’s acolytes who are encouraged to hold forth on ignoring the Constitution must be reminded of the Court’s pronouncements on these very same issues. When former President Chandrika Kumaratunga postponed elections to five Provincial Councils in 1999 by emergency regulation, that was struck down as unconstitutional, (Karunatilake and another v. Dayananda Dissanayake, Commissioner of Elections and Others, 1999) 1 Sri LR. 157). That remains a seminal pronouncement of the limitations of politicians to interfere with the electoral mandate and a salutary warning to rulers who may prefer to think otherwise.

The failure of the Elections Commissioner’ (as was the case then) to exercise his independent mind to fix a new date for elections after the original date had passed, was subjected to severe judicial censure.  As to whether the Commissioner should have submitted to the emergency regulation suspending election, the Court observed ‘…it is necessary to remember that the Constitution assures him (the Commissioner of Elections) independence, so that he may fearlessly insist on due compliance with the law in regard to all aspects of elections -even, if necessary, by instituting appropriate legal proceedings in order to obtain judicial orders… ‘

As opposed to a single Commissioner at the time, that burden of acting ‘independently’ and ‘fearlessly’ is veritably that much stronger where a collective Election Commission (which is the case now) is concerned. That is notwithstanding the recent fracas where the Elections Commission catapulted itself into unwanted hot water by meeting with the United States Ambassador resulting in the Commission needlessly being forced to explain that this was only a routine meeting and only ‘routine’ matters were discussed.

The object lesson of the
2022 peoples’ protests

Routine or not, it behooves both the Commission and the Ambassador to employ a tad more common sense in their actions during what is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive of political times in Sri Lanka. Regardless and to return to our main ‘focus’, these developments taken cumulatively indicate that the constitutional propriety of Sri Lanka’s electoral process seems to be fast degenerating from farce to tragedy. The dire consequences of what may ensue in terms of massive public anger erupting throughout the land if the Constitution is not respected even if potential electoral results may not be to the liking of ruling politicians, does not need to be spelt out surely.

We have just emerged from the object lesson of 2022, the ‘aragalaya’ (protest) which threw out a President, a Prime Minister and a Cabinet from power. Even if the power of the ‘aragalaya’ has fragmented since then given the inevitably vicious strike-back of the political establishment, there is an enduring lesson taught to those who occupy seats of power that their authority is only finite. And even if ‘all the President’s men’ are employed to strike at the citizenry (if we may borrow from the much loved nursery rhyme which is more an enigmatic political riddle), that will not suffice.

The consequences will be much like Humpty Dumpty, they will soon come crashing down, one and all. That ‘great fall’ will be much harder than expected. For the ‘stability’ that the UNP General Secretary sees fit to talk of is very much a characteristic of the class to which his party belongs. That reality remains to be recognised, going beyond electioneering slogans of ‘we understand that you are suffering’ that President Wickremesinghe engages in along with handouts, gifting land deeds or bags of (rotten) rice.

That said, our political history teaches us that lessons are seldom learnt, least of all by the Sri Lankan political establishment. If that must be the cycle of tragic history that we must repeat, so be it.