Sri Lanka got universal franchise in 1931, a mere three years after the British got that privilege. In Sri Lanka, eighty-three years later, after having had 16 elections to choose the national legislature and six elections to elect an executive president, the country is still struggling to hold a free and fair national election. In [...]

Sunday Times 2

Culture of impunity and violence at elections: Prospects for reform


Sri Lanka got universal franchise in 1931, a mere three years after the British got that privilege. In Sri Lanka, eighty-three years later, after having had 16 elections to choose the national legislature and six elections to elect an executive president, the country is still struggling to hold a free and fair national election.

In the current election cycle, the law is broken with impunity and incidents of violence are increasing. Accountability of campaign funding is not even mentioned let alone made transparent and accountable to the public. There is widespread concern that the poll would be tampered with and not all voters would be permitted to exercise their right to vote free of intimidation and undue pressure. It is worth reflecting on what this situation says about us as a nation.

Lack of democratic culture

Polls monitors at a recent workshop. Pic by Athula Devapriya

During the past eight decades or so, we have failed to accept and abide by the fundamentals of a democratic culture. Such a culture requires free and fair elections. In other words, those in office do not misuse power to tilt, let alone rig, the election in favour of the incumbent. A democratic poltical culture also requires that elections be peaceful and that we respect the right of everybody to exercise the franchise without being subject to intimidation and violence. Almost every one of the above norms is observed in the breach in this country. To be fair this is not the first election where these norms are being breached. It has become the norm from about the late 1980s.

J. R. Jayewardene who promised a Dhaarmishta (Righteous) Society in 1977 used legal sleight of hand to replace a regular parliamentary election in 1982 with an unethical referendum to extend the life of parliament.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga promised a country free of terror and corruption. But in the Wayamba (North-Western Province) Provincial Council poll of January 1999, she gave us one of the most fraudulent elections ever held in this country.

In 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa in his Mahinda Chinthana promised not only to abolish the executive presidency (p.97) but also to end the drug menace (p.04), and include a ‘Charter of Rights’ in the Constitution based on the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations and other international treaties to uphold and protect social, cultural, political, economic and civil rights of all Sri Lankans” (p.98) that will produce a “disciplined society” (and) a virtuous citizen” (p.04) towards a “New Sri Lanka (p.01).” He obviously failed to keep most of the above commitment. Now he is leading a presidential election campaign that violates almost every rule enshrined in the Presidential Elections Act No. 15 of 1981.

It is clear from the above that lying to the voter is not the exclusive preserve of one poltical party. All parties do it when in power. The notable feature is that when in opposition they condemn such malpractice but eagerly indulge in them when in office.

Unfair campaign

In this election cycle, the people of this country face two basic issues. The first is whether they would be permitted to experience a free and fair election campaign. The campaign to date suggests that it is not free and fair as it should be. For the most part, the guilty party, as usual, is the party in power. The trend is that the breaking of campaign law, especially campaign-related violence, would get worse between now and January 8.

Free and fair poll

The second basic question is whether the poll would be free and fair. The postal voting, it appears, was conducted peacefully. The Elections Commissioner and other officials who conducted the poll and the over half of a million state employees who voted get full credit for that. However, there are reports that illegal campaigning took place in several centres where voting took place.

A number of concerns are expressed about the main poll on January 8. One is impersonation of registered voters who are dead or gone abroad. Intimidation of the more vulnerable voters such as Samurdhi recepients is another concern. A third that is often cited is the fear that Tamil voters in the north and east may be intimidated to prevent them from going to the polling station to cast their ballot because they are believed to be mainly supporters of the common opposition candidate.

There is also fear that ballot boxes may be switched in transit or at the counting centre. Another concern is that the count itself may be rigged, either in the initial manual count or in the computer processing of the final result. Some of these fears may not be valid or may be exaggerated. But the very fact that ordinary voters think of these possibilities indicates the extent to which the election process has lost credibility among the voters.

Role of the Elections Commissioner

No matter what the law says, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has neither the capacity nor the resources to prevent most of the campaign law violations ranging from the gross misuse of state resources, including state-run media and transport service, to the display of cutouts. Neither can he prevent election violence. That is a job for the police, he says. However, it is within his purview and resources at his command to ensure a free and fair poll. He can also take steps to reassure a sceptical public that the poll that he is responsible for conducting is free and fair and the results are authentic.

Independent observers

On the issue of public confidence, if recent newspaper reports are to be believed, he is about to fail the first test. There will be 1,115 counting centres on January 8. Seven election monitoring groups have applied to send independent monitors to observe the count. Last week the Elections Commissioner informed these groups that he would allow only 300 independent observers and the seven groups have to share these slots. That will leave 815 (73%) of the counting centres without independent observers. There is no law that says that the maximum that the Commissioner can allow is 300. He can allow as many as he likes. In principle he could assert that he is fully confident of the integrity of the count and that no independent observers would be allowed. That is a logical argument even if not factually true. But he is not doing that. He has imposed an arbitrary limit on the number of independent observers at counting centres. There is no logical or practical reason that we could fathom not to allow an independent observer to be present at each of the 1,115 counting centers. The decision to limit the number to 300 is, at best, a job one-quarter done. Or it could be for much worse reasons. The Commissioner can protect his credibility and that of the poll count by allowing all 1,115 centers to be covered by independent observers.

Future reform

The Common Opposition Candidate Maithripala Sirisena has explicitly mentioned that if he is elected there will be an Independent Elections Commission that will overhaul the present ineffective system to ensure free and fair elections. Mahinda Rajapaksa has made no such explicit promise. He has also avoided any significant discussion of good governance issues in his campaign speeches. The public has to pray that if Rajapaksa wins, there would be meaningful electoral reform under the constitutional reform that he says he would carry out.

Civil Society organisations have an important role to play after January 8. If Mr. Sirisena wins he should be held to his promise of electoral reform. Ideally national elections should be held on a fixed day every five or six years under an independent elections commission. Holding elections under a neutral caretaker government will help reduce the gross abuse of the law. If Mr. Rajapaksa wins he should be pressurised into including similar provisions in the constitutional changes that he now promises.

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