The “Bloemendhal Effect” on the General Elections

Barely 10 days are left to the General Election that promises to decide the fate of Sri Lanka for decades to come. But the society seems to be affected by the election only on the surface. It has become yet another spectre of life. The only part of life that seems to have been heavily affected is the media. From Facebook to Rupavahini are spewing out election material. Switch off the TV, unfollow all the news and political pages and your friends sharing political posts, stop buying newspapers and you can be totally unaware of the elections. Of course other than the random grinning faces staring at you from posters and cutouts.

And then the Bloemendhal shooting occured. And no one can resist not knowing about the return of serious violence to the streets of our City. Terrorism and then the underworld were systematically removed from Sri Lanka and Colombo respectively during the Rajapakse regime. The methods used might not be always accepted by us but we can’t deny we are  grateful for the end result. But the drive by shooting has created a sudden return of terror and the underworld to the mainstream social discourse. It was described as an ‘act of political terrorism’ by the Minister Karunanayake.

Those in the UPFA and even those on the same team accused him of using the underworld to support his campaign. I won’t pretend to know anything and neither will I push for a conclusion. But what this tragic incident reminded us voters is that some of the prolific political figures in our country have strong links to the criminal underworld. We had kind of forgotten that over the last few years, because every crime committed in the country ended up being connected to the Rajapakse regime. Everything seemed to happen because of his minions. That might have been short of the truth.

The Ministry of Defense seemed to have created a monopoly of use of force during the last few years thanks to the work of the former Secretary of Defense. Was his methods sort of realpolitik? Yes, the ends justified the means. But we encountered no real gang shootouts as in Bloemendhal last week. I am not telling there weren’t almost paramilitary units attached to certain figures, but they seemed to be at least under Ministry of Defense supervision. But the car found in Bloemendhal with T-56 and ammunition seem to have lacked any supervision until the shooting.  Rule of law has been restored but the monopoly held by the state seems to have been slightly lost.

And this means new actors have eaten into the market of violence. These non state underworld actors obviously act with some sort of political backing and during elections it was apparent in the past. And now Bloemendhal has reestablished that fact.

Competition between candidates in the Colombo district is sky high. The names on the lists of the major parties are high profile. And Colombo is also a district where many educated middle class voters refrain from casting preferential votes. This means the candidates need to compete to win over the preferential votes of the other voters, especially those living in the densely populated regions of Colombo downtown – from Modara to Mattakuliya. The distribution of rations, gifts and scholarships are the main ways of indirect vote buying. And accessing these population centers usually involves going through criminal leaders who have some sort of control in them. They might not control entire neighborhoods as they once used to in the 1990s and early 2000s but they are able to mobilise thousands for rallies and meetings. So one can say candidates sometimes don’t quite have an option other than getting some underworld peeps to support them. After all if one has a few under him to start with, the others would find they have no option but to find their own for the sake of winning the prized MP seat. The hit TV series on TV Derana “Ginikeli Saha Giniawi” (Fireworks and Guns) depicts the events of the past decades of political terrorism very well.

But this is the General Election that has promised to change the political culture of our country. It has digressed enough over the last few decades. It now needs to progress. Look at the candidates on the party you intend on voting for. Don’t just go and vote for the party. Use your preferential voting power. Vote for at least one candidate who you think is free of underworld connections. A candidate who’s supporters might not involve criminals who are targets for rival gangs. A candidate who a utilising their own resources for their campaigns without abusing state resources that we as taxpayers paid for. A candidate who campaigns using his own merits and not the merits of other personalities running from different districts. Remember you are voting for the person who will represent you in Parliament. If that individual is not a reflection of you what is the purpose of voting for that person?

Candidates have begun to vehemently distance themselves from the underworld. They are scared that the voters will scrutinize them heavily on the matter. And we should. And the incident has reignited social discourse about the elections and the credibility of all candidates. I grieve for the dead and injured from the incident but partly I am grateful it happened. It has reminded us of the connection between politics and the underworld. That is the Bloemendhal Effect. Those who are most loudly stating they have nothing to hide about connections to the underworld might be those with the most to hide.

So let us be smart voters. The only way to keep the dodgy candidates out of office is to ensure we use our preferential votes on the right candidates who actually have very little or nothing to hide.

Lets also wish for a peaceful final week in the run up to the election.

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