9th July 2000
Business| Sports| Sports Plus|
By Shelani de SilvaAs the parties prepare for general elections, Polls Chief Dayananda Dissanayake has complained that powers given to him are inadequate and further steps need to be taken to ensure free and fair elections.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr. Dissanayake also supported the proposals for the setting up of an independent elections commission.
He said the current PR system of elections has led to more corruption and violence and he believed the system must be changed.
Excerpts from the interview
Q: On what polls register will your department be conducting the upcoming general elections?
A: The last certified register is the 1990 one. We have already made sufficient number of copies of registers at district level. Current revision will go on till next year and will be certified in May next year. Until such time the operative register is the 1990 one.
Q: What steps are you taking to prevent violence and malpractice as allegedly seen in previous elections?
A: Conducting elections is not a matter for me alone. It is a joint effort involving the Department of Elections, political parties, monitoring groups and the people, with the police maintaining law and order. So if any group does not play its role or if they try to do what others must do, there will be conflicts. If the concerned parties observed the law, there won't be problems.
Whenever trouble spots are observed. we will provide police protection.
Q: Are there any other basic problems?
A: The change from the electorate system to the district-based proportional representation system has enlarged the geographical area for the candidates.
In those days an electorate meant a small area with something like 50,000 voters but now Colombo has about 1.2 million voters. The entire Colombo district is one electorate. A candidate has to cover a wider area and spend more money. He should be a wealthy person or has to acquire wealth from some other sources for canvassing. So the candidate is often forced into corruption. That is what has happened today.
The candidate has to get money and when returning it he may have to give it back with interest, maybe in kind or otherwise.
These are the obligations a candidate faces and it has led to corruption and violence.
I am not happy with this electoral system. It has to be changed. New laws have to be brought in.
On the plus side of the PR, it helps small parties to get a few seats in parliament. So I also support the proposal for a combination of PR and the first-past-the post system.
Q: Do you feel that the Police should be brought under the Elections Department during the elections?
A: Yes. I believe the commissioner should have powers to give orders to the police and maintain discipline during elections.
Q: Some observers feel we have too many political parties and this has led to more violence. Do you believe there should be a strict process for registration of parties?
A: Under the current system, a party has to be registered and recognised by the commissioner before it goes to the polls.
I believe we should have a system whereby a party is registered and it must secure at least 50,000 votes or a seat in parliament to be recognised as a political party.
This system is followed in India where people must first recognise a registered party before it is officially recognised. It is better for the people to give the recognition than for the commissioner to inquire into the matter and do it.
Q: Are you planning to invite foreign observers for the upcoming elections?
A: We will discuss with the parties and take a decision. I have some reservations about international observers.
They come here from countries where they have different scales of democracy. Having that in mind and coming here to observe an election they will analyse the situation critically and assume that it should be conducted in the manner it is done back home.
Sometimes these observers will not get an opportunity to visit all the polling stations. Without getting the whole picture, finally they make an observation but it cannot be generalised for the whole island.
Therefore my personal view is that local observers are better than international observers.
They know the geography, language, tradition and the political culture of the country and so are able to do a better job in monitoring.
Q: At the last Presidential Election the International Observers submitted 18 recommendations. What is your response??
A: Some of the recommendations like those on poll cards involve practical problems and a change of the law is needed to implement them.
Even the recommendations relating to the police are impractical or difficult, largely because of the war in the north and the lack of personnel to guard and patrol every booth.
Q: What are the special arrangements for polling in the North and East?
A: As usual, we will have cluster polling booths in many areas. But we will review the situation in consultation with security authorities and take decisions when the election day nears.
Q: What are your views on the setting up of an independent elections commission?
A: I am for it. It should be a totally independent body with wide powers in administration and enough financial resources to do its work effectively.
Where the law is silent or insufficient, this commission should be allowed to frame regulations for those areas.
The multi -member commission should also have powers to curb violence by ordering a re-poll in areas where violence or malpractices occur.
Q: Do you feel the powers you have now are sufficient?
A: I feel more powers should be given regarding the cancellation of a poll in booths where there is evidence of malpractices. At present, I can cancel a poll only if the starting and finishing times are not observed or if the ballot boxes are not sent to the returning officer.
I feel the law should be amended to provide more power.
Q: Have you been under pressure from ruling party leaders during any elections?
A: I have been the commissioner for five years, there has been no pressure from anyone. From outside, it may seem that I have been powerless or helpless at times or being pressurised, but I have acted fairly and taken decisions based on my own judgement.
For me to act more effectively, I believe the law has to be changed.
Q: What measures are you taking to stop the use of state vehicles and state funds for party work ?
A: Ethically it is wrong, but there is no law to stop it. I can only request the secretaries to ministries not to release the vehicles for party work. But it is not observed.
Even circulars sent by the Presidential Secretariat are not observed.
Another problem is that we have too many elections — presidential, parliamentary, provincial, local government and referenda. We also have the situation where some public servants have party political rights and that brings about an overlapping of interests.
Q: A few weeks ago, you had told a UNP delegation that the ink used to prevent double voting at the last election was of low quality. Are those low-quality inks to be given again?
A: The UNP delegation has given a wrong interpretation. It was a case where officers had not used the marking pens properly.
Q: How effective is the method of using ink to mark the voters' fingers during elections?
A: I feel impersonation cannot change the result of an election. At worst, it could be about 1%.
Q: Complaints have been made that the Grama Niladharis have not submitted the voter registers in time. What are you doing about it?
A: This is due to the ignorance of the public. We publish statutory notices and carry newspaper advertisements in all three languages during the period for registration.
This will continue for two weeks. If no one calls over with the form, the people can inform the Grama Niladhari in the case of rural area. But if it is in the city they can contact the Assistant Commissioner. He will send an enumerator. In addition, we exhibit the A and B lists in November. The A list is the deletions from the current list and B list includes new names. People are expected to go through these lists.
If the name is not there they can make an application to enter the name. They can also object to a name.
Q: When an application is handed over to your offices, some people don't get an acknowledgment. Why does it happen?
A: If it is given to the enumerator, a portion is given to the voter.
This was introduced after I came. When you accept the form you are expected to sign and give it to the enumerator. Once you give the form he will sign and give it so that you will have some proof. If something goes wrong we can take it up with the enumerator.
When a form is handed over to the office, it is recorded and put into a register. When inquiries are made, we could check the register.
By Mihiri WikramanayakeWith the advent of their 150th year, Thomians young and old will welcome their new warden, Dr. David Ponniah. One of the oldest and most prestigious private schools in the island, S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia has selected one of its distinguished academics to carry it forward into the new millennium.
Dr. Ponniah, an old boy of the college, is currently attached to Edinburgh University in Scotland.
With a doctorate in engineering and many years of teaching experience in England and Scotland, Dr. Ponniah is ready to bring about necessary changes to benefit the coming generations of Thomians.
Nominated by numerous old Thomians who realised the need for a capable head at the helm, Dr. Ponniah was lobbied heavily.
'I have accepted the post because I feel it is my duty to give something back to the school', he said.
He had his entire primary and secondary education at the College and realised the schoolboy's dream of scoring a century in his debut Royal-Thomian cricket match, the 88th encounter, in 1967.
Now Dr. Ponniah is in a position to settle down at Warden's House and concentrate on bringing his alma mater to the forefront in the fields of academic studies and sports.
Among his first priorities would be to consider revising the salary scales of the teaching fraternity, lobby for the end of corporal punishment and maintain rapport with the student body and parents.
'The Thomian community is very happy with the choice of Warden and will support him 100%', said Ajith Jayasekera, a member of the Board of Governors.
The students of STC have done well in the sports field and in academic studies and will benefit with the encouragement and guidance of their new Warden.
In a letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper says:
"A July 1 amendment to the emergency regulations issued in early May gives Your Excellency the power to appoint a Competent Authority charged with enforcing the censorship provisions. This move undermines the spirit of last week's ruling by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in which a three-member Bench unanimously held that the decisions of the chief censor were invalid and without legal force because he had been improperly appointed as the Competent Authority.
"We have reimposed some restrictions again as we felt that in the interest of the nation there should be some restrictions on news reporting," chief censor Ariya Rubesinghe told the Associated Press on July 4. That same day, Rubesinghe met with editors and senior journalists from the print and broadcast media to explain the provisions of the revised regulations. According to CPJ sources, he said that the prior censorship requirement was no longer in place, but that journalists would still be held liable if found guilty of violating the terms of the censorship.
"Among the topics proscribed by the revised decree - labelled Gazette Extraordinary No. 1,138/34-are the reporting of "any matter which pertains to any operations carried out or proposed to be carried out by the Armed Forces or the Police Force"; any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the Head or any member of any of the Armed Forces or the Police Force, which affects the morale of the members of such forces"; and "any material which would or might in the opinion of the Competent Authority be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order.
"As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defence of press freedom around the world, CPJ is dismayed that Your Excellency has chosen to give new life to the censorship regulations, instead of using the opportunity afforded by the Supreme Court ruling to disband a system that senior administration officials have conceded is both counterproductive and politically polarizing. When a CPJ delegation visited Colombo in mid-June, we were assured that the administration was moving away from its censorship policy, but these new regulations belie that commitment.
"CPJ objects to censorship in any form, but we find that a system that forces journalists to censor and check themselves can be even more pernicious than one in which the government directly censors material. Prior censorship can at least be documented - and journalists in Sri Lanka have submitted reams of evidence to the Supreme Court, and to CPJ, demonstrating the often arbitrary and partisan decisions made by the censor to omit certain articles and even cartoons that may have been critical of the administration, but certainly did not jeopardize the country's national security situation. The press in Sri Lanka had also kept the public informed of the censorship restrictions by leaving blank pages and paragraphs where cuts were made.
"Censorship in various forms has been in force in Sri Lanka for more than two years, badly straining the fabric of Sri Lanka's democracy. We respectfully urge Your Excellency to act immediately to lift all restrictions on the media in Sri Lanka and to ensure that journalists are provided access to the conflict areas.
"CPJ believes that Sri Lanka's national security is more compromised by censorship than by a free flow of information. Allowing independent reporting on the civil war is the only effective antidote to the rumours and propaganda now circulating, and will help foster the public's understanding of efforts to resolve the current crisis.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter, and eagerly await your response."
By Faraza FarookA battle is in progress over the loaf of bread — with the Trade Ministry insisting on a one rupee reduction but most bakers saying they could only make a 50 cents reduction.
The Trade Ministry is launching a three-step strategy to persuade bakers to reduce the price of bread following the reduction in flour prices.
Ministry Secretary S.C. Mannapperuma said the first two steps would be persuasion but if there was no response, legal action would be taken. Mr. Mannapperuma said calculations made by the Food Commissioner's Department showed that the cost of baking a 450 gram loaf was Rs. 7.03. Thus the bakers could reduce the price by Rs. 1. In the second stage, officers of the Trade Department would check on whether the bakers were complying and if not legal action would be taken.
In response, Bakery Owners' Association President Parakrama Dassanayake said they were ready to reduce the price by only 50 cents.
He said that if the flour price alone was considered then there unld be a reduction of one rupee. But there were also an increase in defence levy and hikes in the prices of gas, diesel, firewood, sugar and margarine," he said.
The Sunday Times spoke to other bakery owners and they also said they could agree only to a 50 cents reduction and that too under government pressure.
Jayantha Premasiri, Manager of a Kalutara bakery warned that if they were forced to reduce the price by one rupee, the quality of the loaf might drop.
A owner of a bakery in Enderamulla also said they would make a 50 cents reduction and nothing more was possible. He said smaller bakeries might be able to reduce by one rupee, but the quality and size of the loaf might also be reduced in the process..
By Nilika de SilvaThe Employees Federation of Ceylon (EFC) which represents the private sector has informed its members that they were at liberty to make independent decisions regarding pay hikes.
"Our policy is to permit enterprises to decide on wages depending on their ability to pay," Director General, Employers Federation of Ceylon, Franklyn Amerasinghe said.
The inappropriateness of centralised and mandatory pay hikes was keenly felt in the private sector which depended on the market economy and the currents of demand and supply, unlike the state sector offices which dished out money from public coffers.
The first request for a Rs. 600 increase in private sector wages was rejected early this week and was followed by a request by Minister of Labour W.D.J. Seneviratne calling upon this sector to consider a Rs. 400 hike which could ease the burden of the escalating cost of living on the workers.
"It was a request and we hope that they will respond positively," Minister Seneviratne said on Friday, although he was yet unaware of the reaction of the Employers Federation.
Meanwhile, with just weeks to go for the first general election for the millennium, the PA Government has declared salary hikes in the state sector to be effective from August 1.
"It's a big discovery", Director Exploration and Documentation, Senarath Dissa-nayake said following a visit by a team of archaeologists to the site in Dodangaslanda.
The ten stone inscriptions include six inscriptions belonging to the 2nd to 4th centuries A.D., two inscriptions belonging to the 4th to 5th centuries A.D. while one is from the 11th Century, Polonnaruwa Period, and the other from the 18th century, the Kandy Period.
The inscriptions have not yet been deciphered, Mr. Dissa-nayake said. Meanwhile, Director Epigraphy and Numismatics of the Archaeology Department, Dr. Malini Dias told The Sunday Times the stone inscriptions include some "vaharala inscriptions" which are inscriptions pertaining to the temple. These 'vaha-rala' inscriptions usually belong to the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries A.D.
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