Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

Sri Lanka: Electoral Violence and the Sovereignty of the People

January 20, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando, January 19, 2010

Four people have now been killed due to election violence during this presidential campaign. This campaign is for electing the highest political officer in the nation. The very fact that the election for the highest political officer for the nation has become one beset with continuous violence and killings itself is perhaps a crystal clear indication of the level of absurdity to which the political system of Sri Lanka has fallen.

Ever since the executive presidential system was introduced elections have been marked by intense violence. Somehow winning the election has become the goal of the contest which in the real sense is not a contest at all. To get to the office that has no limits to its power the path has been set that also has no limits at all in terms of violence or anything else recognised within a civil society.

What is this election for and what kind of political office that requires this kind of violence are questions that any rational person should ask themselves. However, there seems to be no room for any kind of rational discourse in the ethos of this election.

In a democracy an election is the expression of the political will of the people. The Sri Lankan Constitution is based on the idea of the sovereignty of the people. Therefore, it would have been quite normal to expect that it is the sovereign people that become visible during the period of an election. However, it is not the sovereignty of the people that is seen in the streets of Sri Lanka during an election campaign. It is actions that are done to intimidate the people and actions that are done to keep the people at home when some others decide the fate of an election that is made visible during this time.

What then is this very notion of the sovereignty of the people? Some kind of a mockery is written into the Constitution itself where a sovereign people are made to elect, in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation, another sovereign that has no limits to its power. A monstrosity that is borne of a violent election will in the course of time devour all the rights and resources of the people. This, in Sri Lanka, is called the sovereignty of the people.

The notion of the sovereignty of the people was born in struggles of the people against the sovereigns who held all power and who controlled all wealth to the detriment of the people. The people rose in revolt and took the power in their hands and developed the ways of ruling where a sovereign, in the way it was understood in the past, would not have existed anymore.

The new sovereignty which called itself the sovereignty of the people meant that all persons are subjected to the same rules and laws. No one is above these rules and laws. Thus, the sovereignty of the people, in essence, meant the supremacy of the law and the rule of law. The sovereignty of the people meant the absence of the sovereignty of the monarchs and the lords.

However, in Sri Lanka the sovereignty of the people has come to mean the election of an executive president who is above the law and who could control the people without any constitutional restraints, without the restraint of the parliament, without the restraints of the judiciary and without the restraint of the popular will. The present presidential election reflects the very absurdity on which the entire system of politics is based on in Sri Lanka.

The sovereignty of the people means that the political will of the people will prevail on all issues relating to their society and their lives. That means that the popular will must prevail over the manner in which the Nation’s resources are used and managed. After all, the popular will has very little meaning if the resources of the nation, which in modern circumstances mean the financial and material resources which belong to the nation, if such resources are not under the control of the people. The Sri Lankan political system does not give any room for the popular will of the people to prevail on the issue of the management of the resources of the nation.

In the management of the resources of the nation for the benefit of the people some of the most primary requirements would be that the people’s right to food, health and education are given priority. Beggars cannot claim themselves to be sovereigns. The people who cannot make claims for proper medical care cannot claim themselves to be sovereigns. The people who do not have even a say in the way in which the basic rules relating to arrest, detention and the manner in which trials are conducted cannot claim themselves to be sovereign.

In Sri Lanka today, the people do not have any of these rights. Somebody who is called the Executive President holds sovereignty over all these matters. The president has the privilege of deciding whether the people should die of dengue fever or by swine flu. The president also decides through his minions whether a person should remain without bail and for how long.

The president also decides who should be killed by extrajudicial means. The president can practically deny the right of fair trial to people by delaying the entire process, though denial of resources for the proper judicial process and by denying any other facility such for example as even the right of the lawyers to function in an independent fashion. Such is the way the sovereignty of the people is exercised in the country.

Under these circumstances it is no surprise that more people are being killed in the process of the election of a sovereign. And that more inconvenience is caused to the people in order to force their votes out of their hands so that the sovereign elects himself by his own means of power rather than by popular will.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.