COLOMBO: When government parliamentarian and Deputy Minister Nishantha Muthuhettigama intervened with the police to forcibly release three of his supporters who were in their custody for having attacked and burned an opposition election stage, it seemed to be yet another instance of impunity on the part of a government member that would go unpunished. When the Police officer in charge of the area where the problem arose resigned from the Police citing unbearable political pressure on him, he was warned that he would face charges of insubordination and cowardice. Under the circumstances that have been prevailing in the country for the past several years, this would have been accepted by the general public as being the order of the day.

But today, with a presidential election round the corner, the circumstances are not as they used to be. There is a real possibility of governmental change in the offing. The government is no longer secure in its hold on power as it used to be. Unexpectedly the opposition has been able to mount a challenge to the government. There appears to be a tide of public support in favour of the upholding of the Rule of Law and opposition to corruption that the government is being accused of. It is in these circumstances, that the system of checks and balances that ought to be part and parcel of any functioning system of democracy appear to be resurfacing. It appears that those who are vested with state power in the public service are gaining in strength even as the political leadership in the government gets less certain of their victory.

Only a few days ago, Deputy Minister Muthuhettigama was not only able to take away suspects from the custody of the Police. He also was able to dodge an arrest warrant issued on him by a magistrate and leave the country’s main international airport for a foreign haven. The belief was that he had got away from justice, and would bide his time abroad until after the Presidential election when the government would be firmly back in the saddle, and impunity could prevail again. However, in an unexpected turn of events, he returned to Sri Lanka much before the Presidential election, and this time he has been arrested by the Police. This is a very positive sign and it suggests that the country may not go down the slope to a violently contested no-hold barred election.

Election monitor PAFFREL stated in its media release a week ago that “The last week witnessed a diminished number of violent incidents, which is a positive trend and needs to be sustained. However, other circumstances indicate that this could be a temporary respite. The possibility of violence increasing significantly towards the end of the campaign, just before the poll, needs to be guarded against.” In its latest media release, PAFFREL has stated that “The 2015 Presidential Election has a relatively shorter pre-election period of just 47 days when compared to the 68 days afforded to the candidates who contested in the 2010 Presidential Election. With the shorter time period, the intensity of electoral violations and violence appears to have risen and incidents of violations related to the Abuse of State Resources for Election Purposes have almost tripled when comparing incidents reported in the 2010 pre-election period to the run up to the 2015 Presidential Election. If the current trend continues, it is envisaged that violations of all types will continue to rise in the days leading to the election.”

While the ruling party’s utilization of state resources is higher than at previous elections, is not so effective on this occasion. This is due to the split in the ruling party. This has eroded power of the ruling party’s electoral campaign, as those who have been within its fold are themselves countering it. As a result the claims that the opposition party is engaging in foreign conspiracies and has signed pacts with the devil are not as effective as they once were. The crossover of leading politicians from within the ruling party to the opposition has been extremely damaging to the government. The defection of several small political parties, including ethnic minority-led parties, to the ranks of the opposition has added to this damage. This has led to a common analysis that is even shared by those supporting the government, that arithmetic of the voting population, when added up, do not look good for the ruling party. There is a danger that rasher elements in the government coalition might think that the utilization of violence can be used to their advantage.

However, there is a danger that such a strategy of tactical use of violence can boomerang against the government. The main strength of the government headed by President Rajapaksa, as affirmed and confirmed repeatedly at elections, is that it had brought stability to the country. When President Rajapaksa took over the reins of government in 2005, the country was experiencing extreme instability. The Ceasefire Agreement had all but broken down and the country was facing LTTE attacks on virtually a daily basis. This violence, and the counter-violence it generated, led to an environment of fear throughout the country. Even today, the great majority of the voting public continues to remain grateful to President Rajapaksa for the leadership he gave to put an end to that instability.

Much of the propaganda material being produced by those who are campaigning for the re-election of President Rajapaksa, stress the importance of his role in providing leadership that led to the Sri Lankan security forces winning the war. In addition, they call on the voters to show their gratitude by voting the President back into office. Some strategists may believe that artificially creating instability and violence will work in favour of President’s re-election, as the electorate will be reminded of the past, and therefore cast their votes in favour of the President who eliminated that negativity from their lives. However, this is a risky strategy to follow. It can bring the government into disrepute. President Rajapaksa will be put in the position of those leaders, whose name is legion, who sought to cling to power by any means at all. This would not be fair by him or by the country.

The clash that took place in front of the UNP Headquarters last week was a warning sign that the presidential election campaign can turn violent. Previous incidents of violence associated with these elections had been localized. They involved clashes between groups in different localities. There have been attacks on sites where the opposition was going to hold its election rallies, including the burning of their stages. But the clash in front of the main opposition party’s headquarters by pro-government supporters and pro-opposition supporters within was a worrying indicator that the violence could be taken to another level. The resort to violence to influence the course of the election is unacceptable. It would also be counter-productive in the longer term.

Elections held during the past decades have seen an increasing trend of abuse of state resources. Government sector employees, vehicles and especially the media have been utilized single-mindedly to advance the ruling party’s cause. But the use of overt violence has been relatively low in the recent past. Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda has pointed out that “The increasing aptitude for violence demonstrated by the UPFA’s campaign troopers is an indication of a desperate reaction to this apparent crisis of the regime as well as of the presidential election campaign.” The attackers would have felt confident that they had the strong hand of those in leadership positions on their side behind them. The indications are that they had such backing. The police too had come late to the scene. This is revealing as the UNP headquarters would be under constant surveillance by the state security agencies. But now the arrest of Minister Muthuhettigama is a sign that the government leadership is realizing that violence can be counter-productive and goes against the government’s promise of stability.