SRI LANKA: Election Manifests Serious Crisis in Democratic Institutions

Will the perpetrators of violence be brought to justice?

An AHRC Statement on Recent General Election, 2000, in Sri Lanka

The violence during the election this time has been acknowledged, and even the final results from 23 polling centres have been annulled by the commissioner of elections. In addition, the judgement of overall fairness has been challenged by one major local polling group and all opposition parties. In this election, for instance, 70 people were killed during the election campaign, and other violent incidents took place. In short, the general atmosphere leading up to the elections was one of intense intimidation. While acts such as murder took place in some places, a high level of fear prevailed everywhere. Meanwhile, resistance to interference with the conduct of fair elections through impersonation and other forms of gaining an unfair advantage happened only in a few places while in many places the unfair electoral environment was left unchallenged. Where it was challenged, however, there were violent clashes. A survey conducted by a university professor immediately before the elections revealed that large numbers of people were demoralised and had little faith in the whole electoral process.

This is no surprise; for since the 1982 vote on a referendum to extend the term of Parliament for another six years, elections have been conducted with the utmost violence and manipulation, and thus, a trend was unfortunately set in the early 1980s for future elections in Sri Lanka. The parliamentary elections in 2000 showed, however, how far the whole electoral process has degenerated in the country. Two major political parties contesting these Oct. 10 electionsthe ruling People s Alliance (PA) and the opposition United National Party (UNP)are both committed to violence and are well-known for violent election strategies.

There is another permanent aspect to this violence. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) staff member who just returned from monitoring the election observed that this election does not seem to be about governance but about business. The ability to use one s political position and influence to attain business deals and/or to dispense favours in return for bribes seems to be the determining factor among violent political rivals. This too is sadly not just a factor affecting this election, but all elections in the country. In short, this means that the people really have no choice of candidates, for the election is really only about power, not policies, and the outcome, as far as the effects on people s lives, will be the same regardless of whether the PA or the UNP win.

The Result

Despite this election s violent tactics, the ruling PA did not win an overall majority in Parliament, which consists of 225 seats, as they received a total of 107 seats. The former ruling party, the UNP, too did not gather a sufficient vote total, for they got 89 seats. This is a clear indication of the sheer frustration that the people have toward the country s two major political parties which both have a track record of extreme violence. This aspect is fundamental to any assessment of the election and electoral process in Sri Lanka.

One of the most repressed and maligned parties, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP (People s Liberation Front), received 10 seats. Obviously, protest votes in many areas went to this party. The first victim to die at the inception of the election campaign was from this party. From the point of view of financial resources, the JVP was among the poorest. The party has clearly expressed its commitment to the democratic process. Perhaps then this vote does indicate the democratic aspirations of the people and their desire for reforms.

The other most important result was the ignominious defeat of political groups representing chauvinist views. They did not win enough seats to gather a single seat. The Sinhala Urumaya (Sinhala Heritage), which carried out a very expensive advertising campaign, did not win a seat but was given one seat on the national list. This result debunks the theory that most Sinhalese have anti-Tamil views and that extremely racist groups have great influence among the Sinhalese people. If there are obstacles to a solution to the protracted ethnic crisis, Sri Lankan voters proved that they are not the cause of these hurdles.

Hardly any electoral activity occurred in the conflict areas where fighting is taking place. It cannot be said then that the will of the Tamils and other people in these areas is reflected in the election result.

The Police

On the eve of the elections, the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka issued a statement addressed to the Sri Lankan police stating the heavy responsibility that falls on them in ensuring a free and fair election. Now after the election it can be said that the Sri Lankan police failed to carry out their responsibility. Once again, ineffective policing has become a common feature in the elections and in Sri Lankan life in general.

While the commissioner of elections has annulled the final poll result of 23 polling stations, none of the perpetrators of the violent or illegal acts that led to the invalidation of the electoral results in these polling stations has been arrested. Once more crimes are publicly acknowledged, but no action is taken to punish those who broke the law. Within a few days, such activities will be forgotten, and the tradition of impunity will be reasserted.

The argument that the police make for such accusations is that they are powerless and that it is the politicians who decide what the police can and cannot do. If this is so, then one has to conclude that control of election-related violence has become impossible in Sri Lanka, for will any politician fail to take advantage of such a situation? Any critical assessment of the election must make the police problem a central issue of consideration.


It is not possible to avoid the logical conclusion that this was not a free and fair election. However, political expediency will not allow such a conclusion. The conclusion that has been made for political purposes is that it is bad, but fair. How bad does it need to be to be unfair does not depend on facts but on other considerations. Since the opposition is unable to challenge the election results in the streets, politically speaking, the election results will be treated as being fair. Moreover, so long as the two major political parties are what they are, they will not be morally in a position to challenge the outcome of such tainted elections on the streets.

Thus, legally speaking, a government will be formed by one party or the other or a coalition of parties, and it will have legal legitimacy unless the election results are successfully challenged in the courts. Because of procedural problems, however, the likelihood of such a scenario occurring is remote.

However, far more important from the point of view of serious problems that need to be addressed in the country is the issue of the moral legitimacy of the electoral process. The process, and therefore also the result, cannot claim any moral legitimacy. Sadly, this is a matter of enormous consequence.

Implications for Peace Initiatives

The lack of a government enjoying the moral confidence of the people has been one of the causes of insurgencies in Sri Lanka, both in the South and the North. Most people who want to see the present civil war purely as an ethnic issue like to ignore the overall systemic crisis that prevails in Sri Lanka s democratic institutions. Some even believe that thinking about this issue only complicates matters. However, the result of ignoring this issue is that proposed solutions to the ethnic crisis are only illusory and get washed away at every important turnthe same way that the latest proposals for constitutional reforms have been thwarted. If democracy in the entire country is seriously sick, it cannot but affect the problems of the parts.

This election poses one great issue, however: it is the need to deal with the virtual collapse of democratic institutions in the whole country as an integral part of the solution to the problems of the Tamil people. AHRC has consistently insisted on this link.

What then can be done immediately? Some possible remedies are offered.

(1) It is the obligation of local groups as well as the international community to insist that all who engaged in violent activities, however high they may be, be brought to justice. The inspector general of police (IGP) and the attorney general of the country, who is the chief prosecutor, must be held accountable for providing a remedy for these violations. Not to do so would be to violate the human rights guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which the Sri Lankan government is a state party. If such violence, including murder, is the result of a conspiracy, it would also amount to a crime against humanity. It is also the responsibility of the commissioner of elections, who believed that there was sufficient evidence to annul several poll results, to insist that the violators be punished. Otherwise, it will be the electorate that is punished.

(2) It is also an urgent task to subject to thorough reforms the country s basic institutions to maintain peace, the rule of law and human rights institutions such as the police and the office of the attorney general as the chief prosecutor so that they are able to contain violence and ensure law and order.

(3) The National Human Rights Commission should scrutinise the entire electoral process and advise the State and the people about the steps that are needed to prevent a recurrence of a violent and illegal situation like this to occur again.

(4) All victims of violence and their families should be compensated.

(5) All civil society organisations should form a strong movement for democratic reforms, including reform of the electoral system.

(6) Those who take an interest in peace issues should also take an interest in democratic reforms as part and parcel of any peace initiative.

A Warning

Because of the precariousness of these election results, it may be possible that a situation may arise that necessitates another election in the near future. However, if this legacy of holding tainted elections is not changed, the next elections too will be like this one or even worse. The circle can only be broken by a reform process backed by a strong mass movement.

AHRC has repeatedly warned that Sri Lanka is walking towards an even worse situation than it now faces. Sadly, this election has pushed that downward trend even further. It is not the two major political parties that can change this direction though; it is only the people that can make a difference.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-01-2000
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Democracy,