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Sunday, 19 July 2015

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'No legal authority' but ...:

Election monitors ready for action

Despite the crucial role played by election observers to ensure a free and fair poll, the country's election laws have no provisions to recognize their valuable contribution.Undeterred by this lack of legal protection, nearly 25,000 local and over 100 international observers are set to take up position to report on illegal activities before, during and after the poll on August 17.

All Acts governing presidential, parliamentary, provincial and local bodies elections are silent on this subject, giving no legal backing for poll observation during elections.Despite this complete lack of authorization, most Sri Lankans acknowledge that election monitors, both local and foreign, have, by keeping violators at bay, hugely contributed to the gradual transition from violence-torn and fraud-ridden elections to the more peaceful ones you see today. People's Alliance for Fair & Free Elections (PAFFREL) chairman Rohana Hettiarachchi, however, is confident that the lack of legal sanction will not constrain the work of his now internationally famous movement.This is because, he points out, all stakeholders at elections, including the political parties, the elections officials and the voters, recognize and welcome their role. Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) National Organizer Manjula Gajanayake echoes this sentiment.

A senior Elections Department official acknowledged that the Parliamentary Elections Act No. 1 of 1981 does not provide for election observation or monitoring.

Sri Lanka set the stage for inviting observers when an international mission was invited for the first time to observe the 1989 general election."From the first election where observers were present on the invitation of the then Elections Commissioner we have not faced any hostility." Hettiarachchi told Sunday Observer. CMEV's National Organiser Gajanayake said that the role of the present Elections Commissioner was instrumental in building their image. "We are invited to all important meetings chaired by the Elections Commissioner during elections including to the party secretary's meetings."

Static observers

The PAFFREL and the CMEV are permitted to have static observers within the polling station, a privilege not enjoyed by the European Union, Commonwealth or SAARC observation missions, who have been invited by Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya to monitor the August 17 election.

"The mere presence of our offices wearing highly conspicuous yellow hats act as a deterrent to over enthusiastic supporters," he said that they have noticed raucous elements disperse when the observers in mobile units pass by. "We have taken perpetrators to court before this and we will do the same this time as well," Hettiarachchi stressed.

Long way

Sri Lanka has come a long way from extremely violent elections to the more accommodating polls as we see today, largely due to the efforts of the independent Elections heads, highly active civil society, the media and the hard work of the independent poll watchdogs. In the 1989 February general elections, which were mired in violence due to the second JVP insurrection, there were over 200 post-election political murders, a PAFFREL report states. In the 1994 general election, the poll related deaths stood at 20 with a total of 2,750 poll related complaints received by PAFFREL as stated in their final report to the Elections Commissioner.

In the October 2000 parliamentary elections, the observers recorded 16 murders and 350 major violations. In April 2004 General election, the number of poll related deaths dropped to six. The observers recorded a total of 293 serious cases of violence.

The complaints included 89 cases of assault, 74 cases of threats and 51 cases of vandalism. PAFFREL commented that this was one of the most peaceful and largely free and fair elections that was held in the recent history.

In the last general election in the country in April 2010, there was just one confirmed poll related death. Complaints on polls law violations were 313, counting 84 cases of illegal propaganda work, 72 cases of assaults, 28 cases of attacks on propaganda offices and 12 cases of threatening and intimidation.

A total of eight local bodies are expected to observe the August 2015 parliamentary election in addition to observer missions from the European Union, Commonwealth and Federation of Election Monitoring Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA). PAFFREL, CaFFE, CMEV, National Poll Observation Centre, Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, Network for Election Monitoring, Movement for Free and Fair Elections (MFFE) and Lanka Polls Watch will be the local groups on duty.

Heating up

The PAFFREL Chairman said it was hard to make an accurate prediction with nearly one month to go for elections. "So far the parties have pledged support to a violence free campaign but desperation could turn it around as the election heats up and the polls day gets closer."

By last Friday PAFFREL recorded 54 confirmed poll related incidents with 3 grievous assaults and two abductions while the CMEV recorded 36 incidents with two cases involving firearms.

Both the CMEV and PAFFREL have invited international observers to strengthen their observer teams.

The CMEV National Organiser said they will be deploying over 5,000 local observers and 20 international monitors from Canada and UK. PAFFREL will deploy 15,000 local and 15 international observers.

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