As diehard party activists gear for malpractices at
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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,"
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
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.