The Sunday Leader

For A Sound Election Campaign

By Lionel Guruge

Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya addressing a press conference

A number of legislations have been passed throughout history to strengthen the system of conducting parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. Namely, Act No.1 of 1981, No. 15 of 1988, No. 29 of 1988, No. 35 of 1988, No. 58 of 2009, and No. 28 of 2011 were a few legislations introduced for the purpose. These Acts have secured the right of citizens in a democratic society to use their vote without hindrances and for the candidate of their preference. Furthermore the addition of the Right to Vote being accepted as a Sovereign Right in the third Republican Constitution in 1978 was another boost for democracy in Sri Lanka. These actions did much to protect and advance the voting rights of people and as we now move into new elections, it would be wise to educate ourselves on the legal framework on elections in Sri Lanka.

With the introduction of the 19th Amendment, the people hoped that elections would be conducted through an independent Elections Commission as appointed by the Constitutional Council This did not occur as stipulated in the 19th Amendment. However the manner in which the recent Presidential election was conducted was a positive step forward in regaining this ambition. In this respect, the Elections Commissioner must be given due credit for conducting a democratic election. In the wake of the new regime coming to power and the subsequent crackdown on corruption and bribery, however, one wonders how this has contributed to the development of the country or to its people.

Accountability is of great importance, but those in power must not forget that they also have a mandate for good governance that goes beyond holding former leaders accountable. If our goal is towards democracy, then accountability must encompass monitoring of the actions of the Elections Commissioner to see whether he is executing his duties in a rightful manner or whether election laws are properly enforced and those who violate the law are punished accordingly. There are also heavy advocacy campaigns for guiding the voters to choose wisely and use their vote in a mindful manner to elect true leaders to Parliament, yet none of those that spread this sentiment have given any thought to educating the public on the election process and the laws pertaining to it, and, in this regard, the Elections Commissioner can take a greater role in assisting them in becoming truly educated voters.

The level of awareness, with regard to the legality concerning politics in Sri Lanka, is abysmal and this must be addressed if we expect voters to use their vote wisely.

 

Treating

The Parliament Elections Act (No. 1 of 1981) – Section 78 discussed ‘Treating’. It is written under this section that at no point before, during, or after an election can anyone directly or indirectly provide any form of provision to another to vote or refrain from voting at an election.

Any person who accepts any form of treat to vote or refrain from voting is considered in breach of the law. Yet, at a mere glance, anyone can attest that this is a law that is too often violated during election time in Sri Lanka. It is doubtful that most voters in the country are even aware of such a law existing. In a nation that has struggled to cope with poverty, its citizens are attuned to accepting any form of charity that is given, without hesitation, and politicians have taken maximum advantage of this fact to a point where laws have been broken. Keeping this in mind, one must consider the reality of the situation and how far the law can deter it.

It is now considered an open secret that at the last Presidential elections, sil redi (clothesworn to observe sil) and other materials distributed to voters amounted to a staggering 62 million rupees. Most recently, it has been speculated that a prominent politician in the Mannar District is distributing sewing machines and an additional Rs.100,000 to women as the Election Day looms closer.

Although the amount might be alarming, it is not uncommon, and, as this most recent development occurs, it certainly shows no signs of diminishing the trend. If this is in breach of the law, then, in order to avoid the public being victimised, security forces and law enforcers such as the police could educate the public on such a regulation and monitor any form of treat being given to the public. This responsibility should not be shouldered merely by the Elections Commissioner, but by all personnel involved in the election process.

Undue Influence

Undue Influence is mentioned under Section 79 of the Parliament Elections Act. It describes the legal framework pertaining to exerting undue influence on a voter to compel him to vote or refrain from voting. During the past elections, certain news journalists suggested that due to the level of incompetency among politicians, the elections should be cancelled and the ballot papers be crossed out, thereby spoiling the vote.  Yet it is disheartening to note that the law has ignored these statements and taken no action to deter such statements. It is hoped that such events would not repeat itself during this election or any other elections in the future.

Bribery

Bribery (detailed under Section 80) is arguably a heavy topic. According to the Article, any valuable consideration (including money, gifts, proposals, or promises) given in a direct or indirect manner to procure anything is considered a bribe. In past elections, workers in the plantation sector have been promised numerous deals by politicians and other political groups with the hopes of garnering workers’ votes. These deals ranged from providing them the rights to their own house to providing the rights for shop owners to own their own shops to providing samurdhi allowances to those that were entitled but not in receipt. These promises have been recycled with each election, and, yet, no one has provided any relief to this population once the election is won. Neither is there any investigation conducted into the credibility of these deals as it clearly has underlined connotations of bribery laced into it. There is not even a method set in place by the Department of Elections to bring this complaint from the village level upward.

Another common feature observed during elections is transport being provided for voters by political parties. According to the law, transport for voters cannot be provided an hour before or after the commencement of voting, unless in the occasion of a flooding or if someone is taken ill. Voters should be made aware that even such simple issues such as transport given for voters during the voting period is stipulated by law and has consequences.

It must come as a surprise that most voters are not aware of such regulations and could unduly find themselves in difficult situations. Due to this lack of awareness, these mistakes continue with each election, perpetuating a cycle of unlawful deeds. Section 82 of the Parliament Elections Act details the Special provisions relating to punishment and incapacity for a corrupt practice by an un-successful candidate at an election. It states that (as Section 81 underlines the Punishment and incapacities for corrupt practice) the act of falsifying ballot papers and issuing unlawful votes, providing bribes or treats, character assassination, exerting undue influence, falsifying information about the withdrawal of any candidate at such elections all fall under unlawful acts and are punishable by law.

The act of issuing false votes is an offence that is fined Rs. 500 and subjected to six months rigorous imprisonment. The trial could take place at the High Court with approval from the Attorney General, and if found guilty could result in becoming ‘incapable for a period of seven years from the date of his conviction of being registered as an elector or of voting at an election under this Act or of being elected as a Member of Parliament’. However, these laws are not implemented in reality. If these laws were ever truly implemented, it would be hard to imagine how many persons would have been prosecuted against or brought to task, or how many parliamentarians would lose their seat. If the law was implemented, it would have served as a massive deterrent to most politicians that decide to engage in the above mentioned unlawful practices. If bribery and corruption needs to be culled, as much as accountability is necessary, it will clearly not be enough; in order to get rid of the disease that is bribery, it must be killed at its inception.

Beyond Election Violence

During an election, Election Violence becomes one of the most highly discussed topics in the country. As election violence is also classified an unlawful act, election violence monitoring organizations must keep this in mind when conducting monitoring exercises during this election period. As important as it is to monitor election violence, these Election Observers also must monitor other violations of the law, giving enough prominence to these instances as much as they do to the details of election violence. But these other election violations law are overlooked.

Therefore, it could be recommended that these organizations look into perhaps providing greater prominence to all issues relating to unlawful election related acts and suggest an alternative solution by which the police or the security officers in and around the polling stations could be notified when such events are witnessed so as to resolve this dilemma. Since most of this violence (including the violation of election laws) occur outside of the polling stations, the Elections Commissioner claims in his final speech that none of these acts had any effect on the results of the election. The reason he makes such proclamations is because these unlawful deeds are not given a greater platform for publicity.

Therefore it is essential that this issue be resolved with speed. In this regard, then, another prompt decision that could be taken is to spread awareness and educate the public on the rules and laws pertaining to elections and voting, including the laws pertaining to election candidates, the voters, and the penalties if such laws were violated. All this information can be summarised in a clear and concise manner and distributed with the polling card given to voters.

This can be an initiative taken by the Elections Commissioner. If this education is not provided to the voter base, both the voters and politicians contesting elections will continue to exploit the elections and disregard its laws and regulations. By this, the election process itself would one day lose its validity and corruption during election time will be a regular phenomenon and those that engage in these acts will not be silenced or stopped by the laws that were meant to curb them.

The 19th Amendment brought with it increased powers and capacity to the Elections Commissioner. For example, in the 19th Amendment, Section 28 provides an amendment to Article 104 of the Sri Lankan Constitution with 104 (4) (a) that states “The  Commission shall have the power during the period of an election, to prohibit the use of any movable or immovable property belonging to the State or any public corporation”. It is no secret that public property was misused at a large scale during the past election, and the fact that a violation of the Constitution has occurred is indeed a severe misdeed.

The Elections Commissioner must therefore take pains to avoid such events during the upcoming election. Also, the Prime Minister made a statement regarding making a payment to use his designated State vehicle during the election period. To use State property in any manner is a direct violation of the laws set forth in the 19th Amendment and therefore it is puzzling how he hoped to pursue with this unconstitutional act. It is also worth mentioning that we are currently witnessing history in the making; for the first time in Sri Lankan history, a former President is contesting in a general election. It is questionable whether a former President would lose all benefits attached to his title if he later becomes a Member of Parliament. Is it acceptable at any point to use public property then? These are issues the Elections Commissioner should pay more attention to.

It is evident that there are a number of obstacles to face in order to achieve truly democratic system of elections, and if these issues could be addressed in time for the impending election, then the 2015 Parliamentary election could be cited as an exemplary model for future elections. As stated before, this cannot burden only the Elections Commissioner but the responsibility must be shared by the voters, the candidates, the political parties, and all other government and non-government officers attached to the election process if they wish to see Sri Lanka grace a more democratic system of elections.

1 Comment for “For A Sound Election Campaign”

  1. bank west

    mu Ranil ta adina hora .

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