Monitoring and Mitigating Election-Related Violence: Civil Society Experiences in Sri Lanka
Politically motivated violence subverts basic standards for democratic elections. A climate of fear reduces participation, hampers freedom of choice and leads to self-censoring, which can mar the legitimacy of electoral results. Moreover, aggressive political actions during elections can be the spark that triggers underlying conflict to erupt, increasing the potential for loss of life and social destabilization.
For decades, local citizen observers around the world have risked their lives to increase accountability among democratic institutions and build confidence in the electoral process by gathering accurate information and issuing impartial assessments. As nonpartisan community leaders and professional watchdogs, these observers have a strong role to play in forecasting, monitoring and mitigating potentials for political conflict.
Sri Lankan Civil Society
Civil society in Sri Lanka is no exception, with election monitoring groups convening as early as 1987 to try and address recurring political and electoral violence. Sri Lanka has a long history of elections, unfortunately accompanied by a long history of election-related violence. Violence among parties became a common occurrence beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s, and the 1977 general elections saw post-election violence on an unprecedented scale. Inter-party retaliatory attacks soon spread into communal violence between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil populations. Subsequent changes to the electoral system in 1978 established an open list proportional representation system, in which voters not only select a party but rank candidates on that party list, which has led to high levels of tension and even violence within political parties as individual candidates from the same party compete for votes. In a system in which many political parties appeal to ethnic or religious bases of support, inter-communal tensions -- exacerbated under British colonial rule -- have long interplayed with political conflict and in 1983, erupted into two and a half decades of full-fledged civil war.
Sri Lanka finally emerged from the protracted and brutal years of internal conflict in 2009 into a fragile state of peace. While attention has turned to post-war reconciliation and economic development, political violence has continued, particularly around elections, often exacerbated or triggered by unresolved post-war issues. Ethnic tensions and the associated political rivalries inflamed during 25 years of civil war remain pervasive. The war’s legacy of militarization and a proliferation of firearms have left an entrenched “culture of fear,” particularly in the North. The open list voting system, which remains in place, has meant continued violence within political parties. In addition, the absence of a legitimate accountability process for war-time abuses coupled with the erosion of the independence of the judiciary has contributed to a marked culture of impunity around violence.
Citizen Election Observation in Sri Lanka
While election observation is not recognized by law, Sri Lankan citizens have been permitted to observe most elements of the electoral process at the discretion of the Election Commissioner – although significantly, not the counting and tabulation processes. Citizens have observed with enthusiasm, starting from the 1988 elections. Nonpartisan citizen observer groups carefully documented incidents of electoral violence and identified trends concerning political tension. A range of external communication efforts allowed these organizations to raise public awareness around the issue of electoral violence and elicit timely and appropriate responses to incidents. Between elections, these civil society actors have also engaged in initiatives to try and address the underlying social and systemic factors that contribute to political violence. In a political climate that the UN High Commissioner for Human rights (UNHCR) and others have characterized as increasingly authoritarian and a media environment consistently ranked among the world’s most repressed, civil society groups have had to constantly assess how to safely and effectively get their message out, and to whom.
Evolution of Monitoring Methodologies
Building credibility through methodologies that emphasize report verification, establishing relationships with other stakeholders, and developing measures to ensure observer security have been integral to the successes of civil society organizations engaged in these efforts. The Center for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) have long histories of working to address Sri Lanka’s election-related violence. While their long-term visions for a peaceful political climate align, the groups have adopted different overall approaches and short-term objectives, aspects of which could be broadly applicable to civil society work in other countries. CMEV employs a “name and shame” approach focused on raising public awareness and diminishing the culture of impunity, while PAFFREL seeks to mitigate electoral violence through more targeted engagement and mediation with electoral stakeholders.
CMEV, first convened in 1997, is an election-time coalition of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Free Media Movement (FMM) and INFORM Human Rights Network focused on contributing to peaceful elections through careful documentation of election-related violence, allowing them to “name and shame” the perpetrators and reduce the culture of impunity around violence. Outside election periods, CMEV’s convening organizations conduct a range of other activities, including electoral reform advocacy and civic education.
PAFFREL has observed elections in Sri Lanka since the 1988 presidential elections and is the oldest election monitoring organization in the country, using a broad-based network of civil society organizations to mobilize observers and collect information. PAFFREL’s focus is on mitigating political tensions that may lead to violence through targeted communication with authorities and decision makers during election periods and a range of peace campaigns and reform activities between elections.