Do we want polls again?
In the most magnificent of coincidences, it appears that the warring United Front administration and the Peoples Alliance both want the same thing; elections to be held this year. While the former blames what they have (rather quaintly) termed as obstructionist or confrontational politics as its reason for a contemplated snap poll, the latter is reportedly opting for prorogation and/or dissolution of Parliament in the (delightfully optimistic?) expectation that the electoral tide will turn against the administration in power.

Whatever the justifications of the respective parties may be, what is certain is that the first casualty of an election within this year would be the peace process, as indeed, has been predictably warned by the Tamil parties this week. Add to this, the inevitable loss of lives and the colossal expenditure that would be incurred if polls are to be held again barely after the country had time to breathe following December 2001 and one is led to wonder whether one is indeed wandering somewhere in Alice's Wonderland, complete as one would have it, with the Queen shouting "off with their heads." The problem is that ultimately Alice woke up, quite unlike the unfortunate citizens of this country who appear fated to live in this continuing nightmare of "almost hung" Parliaments and shifting coalition governments.

Appropriately therefore, it should not come as that much of a surprise that we now have the Peoples Alliance taking the moral high ground and stating that elections could be held (if the government wishes?) but that the four independent commissions should be set up first, as per presidential spokesman Janadasa Peiris on Friday.

The question as to whether elections are necessary and if so, what manner of elections ought to be held is, of course, larger than this. Electoral history in this country had been hitherto characterised by a total collapse of political faith and an even more devastating loss of legal faith.

We have seen public confidence in the ability of the legal and political system to shoulder the woes of citizens dropping to unprecedented levels. The manner in which cases before court on citizens' complaints regarding violations of the elections law were disregarded at the highest level are now of public record.

We have also seen perpetrators of the most extreme election violence, including murder, shielded by both parties while no disciplinary action has been taken against police officers shown to have aided and abetted in such acts. A useful illustration with regard to the strict standards that individuals are campaigning for political office should conform to, is provided by parallel debates in India that were given force by a November 2000 judgement of the Delhi High Court in the Association for Democratic Reforms case.

The judgement by Justice Anil Dev Singh (for himself and Dr Justice M.K. Sharma) recognised not only that the right to know of voters is a constitutional entitlement but asserted that the right to vote has meaning only if people know and have the right to know the full antecedents, criminal record and suitability of the candidates that they vote for. Accordingly, the court went on to impose a duty on the Elections Commission and the prospective candidate to reveal firstly, criminal records, including where the candidate is accused of an offence, secondly, assets possessed by the candidate, spouse and dependant relatives and thirdly, facts giving insight to the candidate's competence, capacity and suitability for political office.

The Indian Elections Commission was given a roving power to make this information available to the public in a country where, as in Sri Lanka, regional and national thugs have become political leaders.

We need to see also the absence of electoral carrots being held out such as new recruitments into the public service, salary increases, promotions with retrospective effect and the strategic transfers of public officers and police officers.

The horrendous use of public property for electioneering purposes meanwhile is an obvious key concern.

We need to see amendment of the 17th Amendment giving the Elections Commissioner specific enforcement power in dealing with this phenomenon.

In past instances, this column has drawn attention to suggestions made by Commissioner of Elections Dayananda Dissanayake's predecessor, Chandrananda de Silva where, reflecting on the weaknesses of the prevalent electoral system, he suggested an Enforcement Commission comprising of sitting judges which could function as a Court of Law from the date of the issue of the notice of an election up to two weeks after the completion of the declaration of results. This body, de Silva pointed out, could entertain petitions, any acts of violations of the law and bring the offenders to book by way of directions to the police.

In the present context, one could recommend the specific empowering of the Electoral Commission in this respect.

Interestingly, De Silva's study, which he had engaged in for the Colombo based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) accurately pinpoints the tensions between the kind of deterrent laws needed to stem election violations in a first past the post system which prevailed in Sri Lanka prior to 1978 and the proportional representation (PR) system. The growing impunity of election laws violators traced by him to the fact that the laws in force do not have a sufficient deterrent impact on the party itself as opposed to an individual candidate contesting an election.

In a system which is based on proportional representation, the main contestant in a parliamentary election for example is the political party or the independent group for whom a vote is cast and less the candidate himself.

He points out therefore that the election laws need amendment whereby the actions of commission and omission covered by offences, corrupt and illegal practices of individuals acting as agents of parties should result in the discrediting of their parties and parties themselves should be made to suffer severe penalties. The law as it stands now, remains wholly deficient in this respect.

Accordingly, in this month of August 2002, if a snap poll is being contemplated, we need to call for not only the setting up of the independent commissions but the righting of the structures within which these commissions operate. Failing this, we would be only compelled to undergo, yet again, something resembling an electoral charade as we have had in the past.

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