The Sunday Leader

Observers Say Polls Not Fully Democratic

Commonwealth observers said that an inadequate electoral and legal framework coupled with an unequal pre-electoral environment means that the Presidential election in Sri Lanka did not comply with all the key benchmarks for democratic elections.

DrBharratJagdeo, Chair of the Commonwealth Observer Group said that high voter turnout of 81.52 per cent reflects positively on the Sri Lankan people’s strong commitment to the democratic process.

The Group further commended the key political actors for accepting the results of the election and for reinforcing in their public statements the need to respect the rule of law in the days to come.

The Commonwealth Observer Group has been present in Sri Lanka since 2 January 2015. The Group’s mandate was to observe and consider all aspects of the electoral process and assess compliance with the standards for democratic elections to which Sri Lanka has committed itself. Over the next four days and before their departure, the Group will complete its Final Report for submission

to the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Following this, he will send it to the Office of the Commissioner of Elections, the Government of Sri Lanka, political parties, relevant stakeholders, and eventually to all Commonwealth governments. The Final Report will, in due course, be made available to the public. Commonwealth Observers found that the election campaign period was marked by an unequal contest with extensive, large-scale abuse of state resources. They noted the comprehensive bias of state media against the Common Opposition Candidate’s campaign; the use of military personnel and public officials to support the President’s campaign; the use of Government monies, gifts and other inducements; and, the widespread use of state-owned public transport by the incumbent.

The Common Opposition Candidate’s campaign received little to no coverage in the state media in clear contravention of the provisions of the Constitution, the Presidential Elections Act and relevant guidelines issued by the Commissioner of Elections. The high penetration of state run radio, television and newspapers across the island, and especially in rural areas, increases the burden of responsibility on state media to take seriously its obligation as a public resource for citizens.

Significant instances of violence in the campaign period had credible links to political party office bearers and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation with concerns about potential violence on election day.

Sri Lanka’s Election Law disallowing the display of cutouts, posters and campaign material for candidates in public spaces was systematically flouted outside of campaign venues or campaign offices.

Some local authorities had denied the Common Opposition Candidate use of public spaces for campaign venues, in contravention of Sri Lanka’s election law.

The ability to campaign is a basic requirement for an electoral contest. On election day the Group observed a peaceful and well-managed process with a high voter turnout. Voters appeared to exercise their franchise freely with the bulk of voters turning out in the first half of the day, allowing for a smooth and timely closing of the polls.

The Group however recognises that the Office of the Commissioner of Elections lacks the necessary powers of enforcement with regard to election law violations and also lacks legislative independence from the Executive.

Furthermore, in the absence of an independent Elections Commission, Sri Lanka’s electoral framework does not provide for the basic conditions for democratic elections.

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