The Special Report

3rd September 2000

Rigging rules

By: Chandani Kirinde and Shelani de Silva

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As diehard party activists gear for malpractices at elections,
little action is taken to ensure a free and fair poll

Time - election day; venue - some 100 meters away from a polling booth; actors - a group of party activists; goal - to see their candidate gets elected by any means; mode - rigging and intimidation of voters.

The drama is nothing unusual in any Sri Lankan post-independence election. But what is causing concern is the alarming rate at which the rigging is taking place with police and polls officials being reduced to mere onlookers. image

Come elections day, hard-core party activists, carefully selected by unscrupulous politicians, vote once as soon as the polling begins and vote again several times before the polling ends after erasing the ink mark by dipping their fingers in a cut pineapple.

Anyone who is interested in seeing this drama live should visit poverty-stricken areas of Colombo places like Keselwatte, Maligawatte and Wanathamulla where not only ghost votes are cast but intimidation of voters also take place.

imageThe diehard party activists largely from the two main parties target vulnerable voters and tell them that they should vote for the symbol and the number they are told. In some cases, a meagre financial reward is offered to obtain compliance. Those who pull the strings of this election puppetry are the politicians who publicly proclaim they believe in free and fair elections. But it is the same politicians who are the villains of this farce carried out in the name of democracy.

This is the sad scenario of Sri Lanka's multi-party democracy with voters fast losing faith in the electoral system and rigging being synonymous with elections.

"Election violence is often masterminded by politicians so it is they who can put an end to it," said Asoka Samararatne, a lawyer who has appeared in a number of election-related cases.

The Elections Commissioner in his report on the 1988 presidential election and the 1989 parliamentary elections, also had identified politicians as the main culprits who perpetrate and encourage election malpractices.

The report said the whole question revolved around the moral responsibility and accountability of politicians.

The commissioner in his report on the 1991 local government elections the last report to be made public had recommended the introduction of the National Identity Card (NIC) as a necessary step to prevent a large-scale fraud and rigging.

The report said that this move would meet a long felt demand of the electorate and enhance the confidence in the electoral process, eliminate the multiplication of names in the electoral register, and if made mandatory at voting, eliminate impersonation and other abuses, including most of organised political thuggary, at elections.

However, nearly a decade after this and other recommendations were made to curb election malpractices, the past and present governments have paid little or no attention.

Civic-minded citizens ask whether such inaction is linked to politicians' belief that rigging is a necessary evil that ensures their return to power.

The only positive development that has taken place amidst fast deteriorating political values is allowing international elections observers and monitors a trend that began in 1988. However their presence has not stopped all acts of election fraud. The irony is that while this move has, to some extent, acted as an inhibition to any blatant violations, it has also given some degree of legitimacy to elections that were not totally free and fair.

This year's election campaign hasn't started off any differently. With pre-nominations period witnessing three deaths, voters are asking how many more will die in the name or a free franchise.

The opposition has accused the government of getting ready to rig the election by printing excess ballot papers and intimidating the police and election staff.

The police on whom a great deal of the responsibility of upholding the law falls has also become a tool in the hands of politicians and hence their ability to carry out their duties in a just manner is questionable.

Mr. Samararatne said the police definitely can prevent or reduce the number of instances of election violence if they carry out their duty properly.

"But the presence of just two policemen in a polling station is highly inadequate specially when armed thugs invade polling booths and stuff or take away ballot boxes and intimidate voters," he said.

"The police have the right to arrest those who violate election laws. At least if this step is taken, improper poll practices can be curtailed," Mr. Samararatne said.

Independent election monitors have observed that inactivity and inefficiency of the police lead to violence.

It is not only the inefficiency of the police but also the inadequacy of the law that encourage perpetrators. "The laws have remained the same over the years but the perpetrators are using new methods to rig polls," Mr. Samararatne said adding that there was an urgent need for tough new laws.

The Elections Commissioner himself in his report on the 1988 elections had questioned whether the existing legal framework could effectively prevent any misdemeanour at elections.

At present perpetrators of election-related offences such as impersonation, undue influence and bribery are tried in a high court and upon conviction a prison term of not more than 12 months and/or fine not exceeding Rs. 500 is/are imposed.

The Elections commissioner's recommendation to bestow on the IGP and the police department an independent status under the constitution for purposes of elections has also not materialised so far.

Large-scale election fraud was first witnessed in Sri Lanka at the infamous 1982 referendum to extend the life of parliament by another term. Since then, the trend has grown in proportion with successive elections.

Mr. Samararatne claimed that election malpractices were not a new phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics, saying methods such as using elephants to scare away the voters had been used in the post-independence days of franchise.

"However, these days different methods are used as we saw in the infamous Wayamba provincial council election," he said.

The other common problems identified by the elections commissioner include the use of poor quality indelible ink that could easily be removed and violation of the law relating to the display of posters, flags and banners with impunity by all parties.

In the 1988 provincial elections, many instances were reported with pineapple juice being used to remove the so-called indelible ink to enable persons to cast more than one vote.

Hence the malpractices highlighted during the time of the UNP regime have continued during the term of this government as well.


Report not mandatory

Legally there is no provision that states the final report of a particular election should be submitted and made public, Assistant Elections Commissioner K. Senanayake told The Sunday Times.

He said the last report to be submitted on a general election was on the 1989 , admitting that the report on the 1994 elections was yet to be submitted.

"The practice of submitting a report began during the tenure of Chandrananda de Silva as Elections Commissioner . It is a good idea but often not very practical ," he said.

Mr. Senanayake said that one of the main hurdles in forwarding a report after an election is the belief that it could influence the election-related cases.

"The legal cases take a long time, delaying the preparation and the release of the report," he said.


What the law says

According to the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 1 of 1981, there is a total ban on the display of posters, handbills etc from the day of handing in of nominations till the day after elections Clause 74 (1) of the said act states:

During the period commencing from the first day of the nomination period at an election and ending on the day following the day on which a poll is taken at such an election, no person shall, for the purpose of promoting such an election display-

(a) in any premises, whether public or private, any flag or banner except in or on any vehicle that is used for the conveyance of a candidate at such an election or

(b) any handbill, placard, poster, drawing, notice, photograph of a candidate, symbol or sign on any place to which the public have a right of, or are granted, access except in or on any premises on any day on which an election meeting is due to be held in that premises; or

(c) any handbill, placard, poster, drawing, notice, photograph of a candidate, symbol, sign, flag or banner on or across any public road; or

(d) any handbill, placard, poster, drawing, notice, photograph of a candidate, symbol sign in or on any vehicle except in or on any vehicle that is used for the conveyance of a candidate at such an election.


We can hold free and fair elections

In the backdrop of increasing incidents of election related violence, the independent election monitoring body PAFFREL has drawn up measures to curb the tide.

PAFFREL executive director Kingsley Rodrigo said the first step would be to hold an All-Party Leaders meeting immediately after nominations closed tomorrow. He said the meeting would be held weekly so that the parties could be appraised of the situation.

He also said seminars to create public awareness and educate candidates at a district level were already underway.

"Many people believe that given the current trend of violence it would not be possible to hold a free and fair election. But that is not so.

"We can hold free and fair elections. Before the introduction of the preferential system in 1978, elections were relatively free and fair in post independent Sri Lanka.

"With the introduction of the preferential system began the tussle between candidates.

"The other important factor is the electoral system. We had four elections during the last two years. The local Government elections held in Jaffna went off very well and except for Wayamba, the other provinces went off well too. This is because the government Officials did a good job.

Mr. Rodrigo added that in most areas nearly 50% of the Government officials generally perform their duties well. "But according to the present law once a polling booth or counting centre is rigged they have to complain to the Returning Officer, who in turn informs the Election Commissioner. It is only then that the commissioner can act. This procedure is time consuming," he said.

Mr. Rodrigo believes that as is the case in most European countries Returning Officers here should be vested with powers to directly cancel certain polling booths where rigging has occurred instead of having to wait for the Elections Commissioner to act.


What the court said

The election petitions filed by the UNP and JVP challenging the North Western Provincial Council election were dismissed in June by the Court of Appeal on preliminary objections raised by the respondents.

The petitions had challenged the election on the grounds of general intimidation, violence and corruption in Kurunagala district.

The petitions were dismissed on grounds that sufficient material had not been placed before court to show that there was general intimidation, violence and noncompliance of the election laws. The respondents had also failed to show that the impugned circumstances had materially affected the result of the election.

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