The Sunday Leader

Save Elections To Save Democracy

By Austin Fernando

Conduct of elections is a great job of meticulous planning and tact

During the elections in North Western Provincial Council and the Central Provincial Council there were allegations of violence and violations of law reported – some inter-party rivalries and many more intra-party rivalries. In the Northern Provincial Council, a different set of violent actions and violations were reported – some are before courts already.

Inter-party rivalries, and violence caused, is part of the history of elections. It has happened in recent elections too. We have heard of them from the times of voting for candidates’ colors and not in ballot papers like today.

There were geographical areas marked for parties, and it was well known that the capitalist pukka sahibs in the estates were used to block whole villages of voters in the hill country by thuggery, violence and even felling trees. Similarly, it was well known in urban areas that during elections the violent groups were from among the unionists in red, back when they were extraordinarily strong. The underworld type of behavior of today was in the hands of labour gangs in the cities – mainly in Colombo.

Intra-party rivalry had been in the open to obtain candidature from political parties where canvassing had been done through the rich and powerful, and sometimes by leading clergy.

This happens even today, but with less violence. The instigators of violence in the intra-party incidents must be thankful to President J R Jayewardene for having introduced the preferential voting system which paved the way to get elected on the most number of votes captured due to one’s sweet appearance, as shown in the ever smiling posters of candidates and the amount of money, vehicles (mostly found from government departments, corporations and ministries by the government supported candidates) that could be mobilized, and attractive Manifestos. Opposition promoted candidates could not obtain vehicles or personnel from the government institutions.

They also found vehicles and money from businessmen, close friends and relations. Food and liquor were shared by all candidates, and there were the arms carrying guys who thought that those were the instruments that could serve democracy and the best to obtain preferences.

Meticulous planning and tact

I have been a Counting Officer in several elections: during parliamentary by-elections, once during a parliamentary election and several more times in Local Authority elections and Local Authority by-elections. The spread of my involvement in these had commenced from the days of Elections Commissioner E F Dias Abeysinghe – the greatest Head of Department under whom I worked, ever.

I was an Assistant Commissioner of Parliamentary Elections. The habit of calling upon former Election Department hands to support the conduct of the poll had been a tradition. I am aware even now that some of my contemporaries in the Department, namely Bandula Kulatunga, Siri Medawewa etc., support the incumbent Commissioner of Elections, irrespective of their passing the 70th year, proving that the election experiences do not die with age! I remember the heavy-weights in the department like Walter Rupasinghe, Thahir, W Jayamaha etc., assisting many a senior in the department. I had been doing the same service during the tenures of former Commissioners of Elections Dayananda Dissanayake and Chandrananda de Silva.

Conduct of elections is a great job of meticulous planning and tact. It is the only job where we could ask any strong man to mind his business and leave you alone to implement the law. I have seen such happening in the department connected to polls and remaining unscathed. I wonder whether this would be the end nowadays! Such response, in a way, had some link to the Commissioner in office. To understand how the Commissioner looked at the conduct of an election then I may reproduce a letter I have treasured (See box). It was received by me the morning after the Parliament was dissolved in 1970.
In an article I wrote to a web site on March 13, 2010, based on this letter, I created another tongue in cheek type letter to highlight the election process in 2010, on the imagination that the latter would go out from the Commissioner’s Office. I do not think things have changed to the better in the hands of the politicians who brawl to make democracy victorious. After the recent election, I edited this new letter and quote its contents as subsequent status.

Lost and found ballot papers

Unlike during Commissioner Abeysinghe’s days, the present Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya would not have found it comforting that with their past experiences they could surmise what would happen at the forthcoming election. New modes are found every time a new election is held. What would happen at a future election is most unpredictable. Nevertheless, the greater part of the risk lay all the time after the dissolution of a Provincial Council or Parliament. The frustrating issue is the risky election challenges are already looped by potential candidates, their security personnel and underworld thugs. This was very well observed even recently in all three Provincial Councils, where open attacks were reported during the campaign as intra-party clashes – shamefully even after the election was over.

This time there was not so prominent publicity given in the press to failures in the distribution of poll cards. It is an achievement. The publicity received in the media on rigging was less, though some opposition political party personnel were heard saying that it happened this time too.
However, security of counted ballot papers has become a very serious issue.

In my web site article I said “But it is necessary to secure ballot papers after counting because finding them in drains or cemeteries may provoke Opposition politicians to bother the Venerable Mahanayake Theros who do not have legal provision to intervene.” When we were conducting counts we had a process called ‘Verification’ which reviewed the whole documentation process of a count inclusive of the counted ballot papers. Either this is not in law now or would not have been done satisfactorily.

This time these ‘lost and found’ ballot papers have provoked one candidate, who was not a serious contender as observed form the results sheets, to be vociferously derogatory to the Government Agent (GA). Incidentally, the public administration expert Brabranthi while explaining the abbreviated designation ‘GA’ has said that GA stood for ‘God Almighty’!

What a come down to the GA. One good outcome of the episode was that the President of the Sri Lanka Administrative Services Association Kamal Padmasiri, the GA Colombo, took a very tough stand on this issue. May be they are showing off colors and guts similar to the Government Medical Officers Association’s! The way to go young God Almighty – GA! In a lighter vein, to ensure it does not happen, I said then “Ensure that the postal voting operation is hijacked by politically motivated Military/Police or other state/corporation officers, insisting marked ballot papers be shown to them to satisfy that their choices have gained preferences, in the absence of polling agents who will be chased away.” I asked “If everything is politicized and criminalized why not the election process?” This was the complaint made by Sarath Fonseka this time after the election.

I am yet in 2010 status, if Fonseka’s observations were true! Further I said “You will appreciate that we in the Department of Elections should not obstruct those motivated public servants obtaining official perks, such as double and treble promotions when their supportive candidates form a government.” It is too early to observe or experience such, but this time it has been the other way about with the Assistant Commissioner in Puttalam being transferred out and the Commissioner swearing tough action against the culprits. I do not hear such action against the political hierarchies that should cause deterrence to future wrongful behavior. By being silent are not they instigating more vulgar performance next time?

Jilmarting democracy

The usual compliant at elections had been that counting halls are “taken over” by government politicians along with their thugs or bodyguards to terrify opposing counting agents. Further, after losing elections there had been complaints of ‘Computer jilmarting’. However, this time this expected outcome did not originate from the Opposition politicians, but by Dayasiri Jayasekara – a government candidate – who at the last moment of the campaign reminded of ‘computer jilmarting’ much to the grave embarrassment of the government, which provoked the President to say that jilmarting is not required to win.

Fortunately, no one says that Jayasekara won with a thumping historical majority due to jilmarting! The final lesson of these is that the election staff has lost some focus to implement the knowledge of the work they possess, their tact, any opportunity to maintain good humor and prevail on the process with greater independent attitudes of fairness and neutrality. To Commissioner Dias Abeysinghe, these were important ingredients in making a good election in a district.

The more negative incidents happen and are reported, the more the public will lose respect and faith in the election systems and thus the value placed on democracy. A wrongly elected administration will not be the best serving administration. This is why the politicians, bureaucracies, media and legal fraternity should maintain highest standards to conduct and assist the conduct of elections in the manner that Commissioner Dias Abeysinghe expected in 1970. One may say politicians’ standards as well bureaucracies’ have changed and in a changing world ask if only elections standards be static. I disagree, because it is no good excuse since I value democracy which you too should do.

Office of the Commissioner of Elections
33, Horton Place, PO Box No 814, Colombo 7.
25.3.1970
Dear Fernando,
Parliamentary General Elections: 1970

Parliament has been dissolved today. Nominations have been fixed for 23.4. 70. and polling will be 27.5.70. Now we really have to get down to it. It is comforting to feel that as a result of our forward planning quite a fair amount of preliminary work has been done already; but the greater part of the actual exercise now lies ahead. Nomination Day arrangements, careful checking of the writing of poll cards, security of ballot papers, indelible ink, clippers, registers etc the many aspects of the postal voting operation, checking on ballot boxes, transport arrangements, counting arrangements, etc. all remain to be worked out.

Nothing can be overlooked in an election, so meticulous planning, checking and rechecking on work and arrangements, etc. are essential. Go ahead with your thinking and planning right now. Remember too that we will be in very close touch with politicians, colleagues in the Public Service and the public in the months ahead. Knowledge of your work, your tact, good humor and attitudes of fairness and neutrality will be important ingredients in making a good election in your District. I do not need to ask you to do your best because I know you will always give of it. If at any time you require any advice or assistance from anyone in the Head Office please do get in touch at once- telephones are faster than letters.

With kind regards and best wishes,
Yours sincerely
Sgd: E.F. Dias Abeysinghe

2 Comments for “Save Elections To Save Democracy”

  1. daya weerasinghe

    There are too many fathers ,sons snd uncles get nominated to contest in Sri Lankan elections ( politics.!)

  2. Guru Samy

    “Save Elections To Save Democracy”

    You are totally incorrect. Democracy can stands with “Law and Order”.
    Law and Order make power to conduct impartial “Elections” with out by force.
    If there is no Law and Order, no Elections and no Democracy,
    To establish “Democracy” in this country, first make Law and Order establish.
    To establish Law and Order bring back Hang Man(Alugosuwa) back to his office and to Law Book.

    After his (Hang Man) arrival see how Democracy Shines in Srilanka. The time from the Hang Man foolishly sent home by the “Biggest Foolish Political Cheater of Srilanka” in 1950, honarable Mr “Democracy” was dead and burried but not lonely himself but with the same “Biggest Foolish Political Cheater” who sent him home.That proved to the country how the HangMan makes the country on Law and Order to establish Democracy.

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