'Election laws outdated and impractical'
"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outdated and impractical," heads of two election monitoring bodies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
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
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The tendency to break the election law is there due to outdated or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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.