ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Sri Lanka : Unstable Dispensation

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It may be a consolation that the somewhat indeterminate results of the 11th general elections in Sri Lanka may not be construed as a vote against the constitutional changes proposed by the last People's Alliance (PA) government. But the heightened violence and extensive fraud that marked the polls were far from a good chit for the health of parliamentary democracy in the country. The Election Commission, while it annulled the elections in 22 districts, many of them in Kandy which saw the most violence, has certified that overall the process had been 'fair'. Independent observer groups, including from the European Union and the Commonwealth, have however unanimously and unprecedentedly criticised the conduct of the elections. This has given rise to serious concerns over the lack of accountability of the government and the major parties. More worrying is the marked unconcern in the country over these "most egregious violations and rigging", as one of the reports put it. International media, including India's, have glossed over the reports by several independent observers on widespread poll-related violence, obstruction of voters, malpractices, thuggery, deliberate invalidation of votes, bogus voting, mass vote capture, and the direct and blatant involvement of candidates and their supporters, including and perhaps especially those of the ruling PA, in these activities. Even before the elections international observers had directed criticism at president Kumaratunga's overt and covert control of the media. It is in this context that the PA's wafer thin majority, the marked depression in the vote percentages of the two major parties and the prospects for the new government must be viewed.

Elections in Sri Lanka have been issue-less generally. Rather, other than the ethnic strife in the north no other issue has been a major focus of election campaigns. Unlike in 1994, this time it was the constitutional reform bill on which debate had centred. The bill ostensibly prepares the ground for a resolution of the ethnic conflict, although evident was a lack of fresh thinking on the ethnic issue. The bill appears to have made for greater polarisation than the ethnic issue itself. However, the dissent on the bill has become diffused because of other factors, as for instance president Kumaratunga's assertions about persisting with the military counter to the LTTE's violence which did not seem to quite impress the pro-Sinhala voters. The success of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna which has won an unexpected 10 seats and the Sinhala Urumaya with one seat is a pointer to where the pro-Sinhala vote has gone. Moreover, even though the roots of Sri Lanka's faltering economy lie in the northern conflict, the deteriorating social sector indices point to a neglect of governance which, it is becoming obvious, people are not willing to accept any longer. In that sense the indeterminate vote adds urgency to attempts to resolve the conflict and begin the long process of normalisation not only in the north but in the rest of the country as well.

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