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Sunday, 6 April 2014





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Government Gazette

'Election laws outdated and impractical'

Rasanga Harischandra

"The candidates are compelled to breach the elections law since it is outdated and impractical," heads of two election monitoring bodies warned highlighting the urgency to amend the 1988 Provincial Councils Act to avoid violent polls in the future.

The Sunday Observer met polls monitors after the Western and Southern Provincial Council Elections to do a postmortem on the conduct of the recently concluded poll.

People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PFFREL) Chairman Rohana Hettiarachchi,

It was obvious that almost all the candidates breached or manipulated the election law during the campaign period. The law says a candidate cannot display posters, banners or cut outs in any place other than his campaign office. This law was relaxed after an agreement with all political parties.

Hoewer, they cannot exploit private vehicles, public transport sector, roads, culverts, parapet walls to display their propaganda. A candidate can use his private vehicle, not an entire convoy for this purpose. That is the law according to the book. The posters were the nearest reason for contentions and violent clashes among rival groups.

The tendency to break the election law is there due to outdated or nonviable election laws that need to be amended urgently. We have been talking about it after every election and on the eve of every election. Unfortunately the arguments die down after the election. This should not happen this time as well.

Rohana Hettiarachchi

The talk on changing the election system to bring in a combined system of first past the post and preferential, abolition of executive presidency, are all too common. But abolition of executive presidency is still a distant possibility because it could have positive as well as negative impacts under the prevailing conditions. Even the election system cannot be done away with over night.

Therefore as PAFFREL we thought the issues that can be addressed immediately, such as campaign related concerns, use of public property, things that have a decisive impact on the poll outcome, we need to create a public forum and make certain recommendations to the Elections Commissioner.

The key stakeholders in this discussion are political party representatives, Elections Commissioner, Media, intellectuals and concerned citizens. The aim is to come up with a set of recommendations calling for amendments to the law. The recommendations needs to be submitted to the parliament, unless the law is amended, the Elections Commissioner can do very little to ensure a free and fair election.

Corruption could not be fought by electing affluent or leading businessmen either. Their goal may be prestige not money. But what use will it be if the man is never in his office?

A recent news report said Eastern province Provincial Councillor Daya Gamage and three others have not attended the monthly council meetings in three months. This shows that people must pick candidates with true commitment to serve the people, not those who are popular, powered or monied.

In the Uva province the recent PC meeting was suspended after just three minutes for not having the proper quorum. In 2012, a total of 10 council meetings in the Uva province had been canceled due to lack of proposals and not having the quorum. One Tamil MP in the same PC had been present only at four meetings during the whole of 2012, reportedly he spends more time in India than Sri Lanka. This is not a responsibility exclusive to the ruling government - the governments in the past and the governments that will be elected in the future or for that matter the opposition. Everyone must contribute to a better political culture. All political parties must ensure they choose only the genuine candidates who are driven by the responsibility to serve the people.

In Bangladesh and India, there are strict rules on election campaign financing which spell out a ceiling on expenditures. These are clearly good models for Sri Lanka to study. In Bangladesh they have linked the expenditures to the number of voters in the electorate. For instance a specified amount laid down by the Election authority multiplied by the number of voters should be spent by a candidate.

I think there should be set guidelines for posters and cut outs also to regulate the size and the number of colours that can be used. There may be loop holes in those systems but, Sri Lanka urgently needs to bring in some sort of changes to its current system. If not for the Elections Commissioner's enlightened tactics, the poll conduct would have been a total disaster.

However, we believe that the rules must be practical and viable. If there are so many rules that tend to be broken then there is a tendency to break even the ones that can be respected. Therefore, we must change the present election law to accommodate a practical set of rules.

This includes the rules on campaign financing. An option would be to maintain a common budget under the Elections Department, under a new unit, where the parties contribute for their respective candidates. The printing of posters and cut outs can be handled or regulated by this new unit to maintain uniformity.

The other concern is the type of persons voters choose to represent them. The qualities they have to look for in a candidate should be education, respect for principles, a broad knowledge in politics. Today the chosen candidates have none of the above other than being famous, rich, and powerful.

Misleading campaigns too, have an effect and alter the outcome in a poll. We need to enhance political literacy among people to counter that. However, we cannot wholeheartedly presume the voters are completely ignorant. This is an inherent problem - why people choose to elect the delinquents over the educated and principled. When people have to rely on their representative to get even a mere job transfer done, they want someone who command power in the office, to twist an arm or two if needed.

If the politician refrains from interfering in the administration system, if he does not have to call an official to get a child into a school, a 'deserving' promotion effected and to get a genuine transfer done or to find a job for an educated youth, that means the system is in order, then there is no reason for people to go behind politicians.

When the role of politician confines to his duty, the system too will be in order. But the question is which should be corrected first? We have initiated a study to look into this area and find out the root causes for this political culture and make recommendations to rectify the situation. The research will continue for six months.

Although we don't see eye to eye on all issues, we believe the present Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshpriya is someone who is accessible and wants to get things done. He was quick to respond to monitors' concerns during the recent election.

The fact that he got the major political parties to comply with the asset declaration rule shows his capability. Special incentives were offered to the parties to comply with this rule. Therefore, we believe that our recommendations will have a better chance of seeing the light of day during his tenure.

We have also discussed the possibility of holding elections under a caretaker government. This was done in Thailand. According to our election calendar, with Local Government bodies having a four year term, Provincial Councils a five year term and the Parliament a six year term this will be a difficult task. But it will be one of the recommendations.

Convener of National Polls Observation Centre, Rasanga Harischandra,

Although asset declaration was carried out to a satisfactory level during the last election, it was elicited with much persuasion by the Elections Commissioner. Although the assets have been declared, the present law does not empower the Commissioner to do as he wishes. We believe that this law needs to be strengthened.

As far as the campaign funding is concerned it is our view that there should be a ceiling for the expenditures. A law must be passed to define as to how there funds should come in, if it is in the form of cash what is the maximum amount that can be accepted from one party and if it it by other resources then how it should be made. This is very crucial to maintain independence of candidates once they get elected to office.

If I may refer to the French election law on campaign finance it has clearly defined the limits on election expenditures and political funding activities. Even if you accept finances from an online source the donor has to be identified and even then the amount cannot exceed 20% of your total budget.

There are also rules to prohibit campaign money to patronize media. For example in the last election a certain media institution got nominations for three of its employees who had no political background. They received nominations from three different political parties and all three of them got elected. This is not a good trend. Their win was due to manipulated public opinion.

Can you justify the airtime allocated to these candidates and can an ordinary candidate advertise like they did on television. Clearly their media campaign contributed to twist the public opinion. One of the three, a person who had no political background or history of serving the people in any manner, topped the list from that party.

This is dangerous, because if this trend allowed to be continued there will not be any room for genuine persons who want to serve people to emerge in politics. The past elections have shown a decline in the number of intellectuals entry into politics. This time we saw the few professionals who ran for office have been rejected by the people over these superficial candidates.What will happen if the other private media too decide to follow in their footsteps and field candidates. In France private channels are prohibited from election campaigning. The state media has to allocate equal time between the parties.

Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and his contemporaries in politics were all educated youth. The President and the Opposition Leader today are both lawyers, they are professionals. In the past teachers and government servants were able to rise up in politics driven by genuine desire to serve people, but today we see that this trend being broken by fake leaders who work for private agendas and private media institutions manipulating the voters. This is extremely dangerous.

The other concern that we would like to raise is the Provincial Councils Election Act. The election is conducted under proportional representation system but the Act refers to a First Past the Post system that existed when the Act was introduced in 1988.

The preferential vote system came after that, the law in this act refers to how a campaign should be done in one electorate but now the candidates have to cover an entire district. The law prohibits posters but house to house campaigns are permitted under certain limitations. This needs to be amended, .

If you take Colombo which is a large district, there are more than ten seats and in Matara there are 7 seats, how can you comply with these rules. Such things are irrational and candidates are compelled to break these laws. The law needs to be revised.

When there is a ceiling on campaign funding, an affluent candidate will not have any undue advantage over the others. Everyone will have equal opportunities. The room for such candidates to manipulate public opinion by buying extra airtime will not be possible then.We think the party funds should also be audited in the same manner. If they get overseas funding to execute a given agenda that is detrimental to the country. The Election monitors should also reveal their funding sources likewise. I say this because during the past PC election a certain polls monitoring body reported 1000 incidents of violence while the Police polls observer unit reported only 100 odd incidents. There was a huge gap, and we felt if things have been exaggerated for some unknown reason.

These are the concerns that we think needs to be brought to the attention of the Elections Commissioner following the Western and Southern Provincial Council Election which concluded recently.


LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lank
Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL)
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