|Friday, 12 March 2004|
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The vote and the public conscience
With a free and fair election emerging as a strong imperative, it is encouraging to note the substantial willingness of civic organisations and opinion-moulding groups to involve themselves in monitoring and other processes which are integral to the conduct of a credible poll.
The latest such group to volunteer its services consists of a number of retired senior police officers, who made their intentions known to Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse. Our report said yesterday that these retired police personnel had formed themselves into a monitoring committee headed by retired Senior DIG Tilak Iddamalgoda. While doing everything within their means to ensure a fair election, the committee would be expecting to "coordinate all activities with the police and take action regarding unfair treatment of police officers", among other responsibilities.
These are laudable initiatives on the part of the public which need to be encouraged. While all relevant authorities, including the Elections Commissioner and the law-enforcement authorities, should utilize all their statutory powers to ensure the conduct of a free and fair election, it is also the responsibility of the people to take a keen interest in these issues which have a close bearing on their lives and on the future of the country.
It is with appreciation that we note the involvement of organisations, such as Transparency International and the OPA, in, among other things, raising public awareness on the need to have a corruption-free poll. Besides, their input has been substantial in highlighting the question of some politicians misusing the powers of their office and on the illegal use of State resources at election time by some of those wielding authority.
All this augurs well for the holding of a controversy-free poll. Thus far, very few elections in this country have escaped the public strictures of unfairness and manipulation. Consequently, the democratic process comes to be seen as flawed and lacking in credibility.
We are glad to note that top public officers, like the Elections Commissioner, are, this time around, exercising their powers to the fullest to ensure a fair poll. The law enforcement authorities too need to follow suit.
However, a civic-conscious public could supplement these efforts by being proactively involved in ensuring a fair poll. The retired police officers' committee has shown the way and many more such civic-action groups, we hope, would join these efforts to ensure the conduct of a clean poll.
Asia's elections year
They say that people get the government they deserve. More than one billion Asians will test this axiom this year, as 11 countries hold Presidential or Parliamentary elections.
Taiwan (March 20) and Malaysia (March 21) will set the Asian electoral ball rolling. Sri Lanka goes to the polls on April 2, followed by Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines and Hong Kong in the next few months. India (674 million voters), will hold a rolling election that starts on April 20 and continues in stages until May 10.
While India and Sri Lanka have consistently held elections since 1948, elections remain a novelty to voters in some Asian countries which had one-party or military rule. The call to voters across Asia thus indicates a shift to pluralistic democracy.
Asia's record at elections is not enviable. Vote rigging, impersonation and other malpractices are rampant. India will be using electronic voting machines this year in a bid to reduce malpractices. Other countries must study the Indian example seriously if they seek free and fair elections.
Another concern is the rise of violence during election campaigns. Two people have already been killed in Sri Lanka. Police had entertained hundreds of complaints from political parties.
Both election malpractices and acts of violence point to political immaturity. Incidents have been reported from almost all Asian countries holding polls, whereas none has been reported from the United States whose Presidential Election will be held in November. Politics in developed countries is confined to the political stage. It does not evolve into clashes among activists and supporters. There's no thuggery and intimidation, just the ballot. Asian politicians must abandon inflammatory politics.
Reforming electoral systems has been suggested as one way of overcoming intense rivalry among candidates. For instance, the system of Proportional Representation (PR) practised in Sri Lanka leads to a virtual war for preference votes among candidates in the same party, leave along rival parties. Sri Lanka, like a number of other countries, is exploring the possibility of changing the PR system.
Asian countries should also address voter apathy. The percentage of votes cast rarely exceeds 55 percent in most countries. Their citizens must be told clearly that 'bad governments are elected by good citizens who don't vote'. Asians must go ahead and cast that vote. This is their year.
Produced by Lake House