Laughter echoed across the room when it was revealed that one of the candidates contesting the local government elections preferred to be called by her nickname ‘Thana kola kapana akka!’ This happened during an interesting discussion on “local elections and new processes” at the Sunday Times Business Club (STBC) on Tuesday at the Movenpick Hotel, [...]

Business Times

Nicknames and booby traps


Laughter echoed across the room when it was revealed that one of the candidates contesting the local government elections preferred to be called by her nickname ‘Thana kola kapana akka!’

This happened during an interesting discussion on “local elections and new processes” at the Sunday Times Business Club (STBC) on Tuesday at the Movenpick Hotel, Colombo. (A detailed report on the proceedings is on Page 8).

There are many concerns about the February 10 poll. Among them is the lack of awareness amongst voters of their candidates and in this context, one ingenious candidate, according to Asoka Obeyesekere, Executive Director at the Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), had posted a message on social media explaining that she is better known as ‘Thana kola kapana akka’. In fact, in her leaflets under her actual name she has inserted the name with which she is known in her area.

“Given the unfamiliarity of candidates to voters, this is a smart way of connecting with people,” Asoka explained, amidst laughter.

“Knowing your local candidate” is one of the biggest challenges in the poll in which 60 per cent of the candidates would be elected on the colonial first-past-the-post system and the balance 40 per cent on the current proportional representation (PR).

Another piece of information that not many people are familiar with is that this 60-40 system is only in the case of the local government elections. However, if it succeeds – with February 10 serving as a test – then a similar system could prevail at provincial councils and parliamentary elections.

The new mixed system has both pluses and minuses. Unlike earlier under PR where voters select a ‘good’ candidate among a list of names per party or independent group, here there is one candidate per party per ward. Your vote for the party automatically means the one-and-only candidate contesting that ward gets elected.

The plus point, however, is that you know whom you are voting for and can choose between candidates, not their parties. But given the strong affiliations in Sri Lanka to party-based support, it remains to be seen whether voters would prefer a party even if a bad or weak candidate is being fielded.

Then there are underworld thugs and crooks in the running. And, if a strong party fields a thug or a known crook (today’s underworld and crooks easily escape the long arm of the law, so for all purposes they are ‘clean as a whistle’), voters will get the short end of the stick.

That’s not all; bribery and corrupt ways to induce voters are rapidly increasing, according to Executive Director of the People’s Action for Free & Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Rohana Hettiarachchi.

Biriyani packets, gas cookers, grinders, shoes, books, cement, wall clocks, diaries and sometimes cash as much as Rs. 5,000 each are being doled out liberally to win votes.

The cost of running a campaign per candidate hasn’t reduced either even though awareness creation is limited to a small area instead of a district. Unlike the PR system where there are second, third and even ninth places depending on the area, in the new system there is no second place. Only one person wins and to win, it’s a virtual do-or-die, high-stakes battle … the reason why candidates are offering gifts and cash.

Halfway through writing this column, the hardly-used landline rings at home. Where is Kussi Amma Sera, my unofficial advisor and sometimes pain-in-the-neck?
She comes running, shouting, “Mahattaya … Mahattaya … call – ekak”.

I am in a mood for a distraction and on the line is our ward candidate, ‘Poli Mahattaya’.

“Saar, apey wadey hari-yayi … neda?”
“Ah?” I ask on a puzzled note.
“Aei Sir, apey minissu dannawa poli mahattaya ill-lanawa kiyala. Mey-sarei hariyanawa,” he says with confidence. “Hariyanawa? More like “Ill-lung-kanawa”, I mutter under my breath without his knowledge.

We end the rather loud conversation but busy-body Kussi Amma Sera has been listening quietly from the kitchen.

“Mahattaya, apey gamme api dannawa kawda ill-lanne kiyala, aey gollo hondai. Porondu ish-ta kera nath-num, apey gamme minissu danna-wa mokak-de karanna onay kiyala,” she says, meaning that the villagers know how to deal with politicians with a history of broken promises.

Strict elections laws ably executed by the Election Commission through the Police in which posters and cut-outs are banned look as if there is no election around.

The only signs of an election happen when your candidate comes a-calling with a motley crew of supporters or loudspeakers blare in the distance during an election rally.

‘Knowing your ward candidate’ appears to be mostly an urban issue. “I know all the candidates in my village because they are familiar faces but my vote is in Colombo and here I don’t know my candidate,” confessed Rohana from PAFFREL, highlighting a common issue in Colombo and other urban centres where people are disconnected from what is happening in their area.

Security is going to be a challenge as votes will be counted in the polling station itself instead of the past practice of being brought to a central location. While on the one side it reduces any ‘abduction’ of ballot boxes, which happened some years ago or any ‘jil-mart’ exercise, issues can crop up at the polling booth itself which will be manned by just two to three policemen.

On the plus side, the ballot paper is easy to fill; just one tick in a box.

State resources have been barely abused by candidates unlike in previous polls. But this, it has been pointed out, is not due to the honesty of candidates (rare if it ever happens), rather it’s because the councils were dissolved more than a year ago and with that politicians lost access to vehicles and other infrastructure.

An election which many expected to be uninteresting based on past experience has assumed national-level significance and is seen as a test of strength for four parties – the UNP, UPFA (SLFP), the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPJP) and the JVP.

Both the UNP and the UPFA are claiming that the results could pave the way for a new government. Whether this is election rhetoric or not remains to be seen. Under-the-cloud UNP politician Ravi Karunanayake seems to think so, repeatedly saying that the widely-publicised decision of a UNP committee to suspend him from party activity after acts of impropriety, is election rhetoric.

The joint opposition is also claiming a booby-trap is being set by governing parties where Ravi (with his consent) will be remanded to deflect public opinion that action is not being taken against alleged crooks in the government and released after the poll. Again, whether the voters will buy this ‘dummy’ remains to be seen.

An interesting dimension in the poll is that a group of artistes led by veteran singer Sunil Perera from the Gypsies has publicly come out in support of the JVP. While their meetings appear to be confined to urban centres, the group also placed full-page newspaper ads urging voters to support the JVP, saying both the country’s main political parties – the UNP and the SLFP – have failed the people in the 70 years since independence from colonial rule.

An important question was raised at Tuesday’s discussion by a member of the audience: “Is there provision to remove an elected representative if they fail to fulfil their promises?”
There was no clear response to this but raises the question of accountability of candidates. What about the law of public humiliation? The National Drugs Control Authority Act of 2015 has strong provisions against pharmacists who dispense drugs without a valid licence. They are not only fined and or/jailed but also have to publicly seek pardon for their crimes. In one such large newspaper advertisement last week, Anil Deshapriya Fonseka, owner of a pharmacy said: “I beg for mercy from the entire nation of Sri Lanka.” Found guilty of selling drugs without a permit, Fonseka’s ‘big-as-life’ advertisement said: “I wish to inform the general public that I will refrain from such acts in the future and wish to seek pardon from the public.”

Just imagine a notice like that on the house of a local politician? So vote wisely, know your local candidate and don’t get swayed by biriyani, arrack or booby traps.

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