SL can teach others how to oust dictatorial regimes - Hoole
Sri Lanka is in a position to teach the world how to stand up to
dictatorial regimes and overturn such regimes through peaceful
elections, member of the Independent Elections Commission, Dr.
Ratnajeevan Hoole, said.
Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole, Member, Independent Elections
In an interview with the Sunday Observer, he said the Commission is
currently occupied with the task of absorbing the former Election
Department staff, preparing to conduct the upcoming local government
elections, where for the first time the 30% quota for women will be
Q: The Independent Election Commission was a long felt need in
Sri Lanka. Can the new body live up to those public expectations?
A: I am proud to be working with a team that ushered in the
changes of 8 January 2015. If not for them, we will not have the
freedoms we now have. The people have triumphed.
In 2011, I wrote of the election malpractices in Kayts, including
police jeeps driving around without number plates. For that, I was
served with a criminal charge-sheet and I fled the island. Ironically,
today I am serving the Election Commission, ensuring that what happened
in Kayts does not happen again!
Today, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution simply transfers the
powers of the Election Commissioner to the Independent Election
Commission– its Chairman, Mahinda Deshapriya and its, two members (Nalin
Abeysekera PC and I), together with the powers of the Elections
Department. There are three of us where there was only one before. And
we are independent. What the Department magnificently did, the
Commission can therefore do better.
Q: What exactly are the current functions of the Commission?
Have you so far faced any practical issues?
A: The three of us famously get along. That goes a long way
towards making a good Commission.
The Commission worked steadily to attach the Elections Department
Staff in the Commission and to preserve their pension rights.
We obtained financial approval for the new positions in the
Commission we proposed. Until then, the defunct Department staff members
were technically without jobs but we continued to pay them! Practically
everyone in the Department has agreed to join the Commission.
There are some glitches in the text of the amendment but we are
working closely with the government to rectify them.
For me, to be effective, the main practical issue is coming to speed
on all laws and enactments. Commissioner Deshapriya’s experience helps
as I learn.
Commissioner Abeysekera as the Legal Draftsman for 15 years has the
knowledge of laws he drafted, at his fingertips.
As lawsuits pile up, naming me with the others, as a respondent, the
practice is to sign a proxy and let some lawyer handle the matter on my
behalf. But the ethical thing is to study whether there is any merit to
the complaint and instruct such lawyer on the position he/she ought to
take on my behalf.
The government must be responsive to those who are ruled. If a
petitioner is aggrieved, we must not routinely oppose his prayers for
relief as if we are always right. Timely elections are a democratic
right, but Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa have had expired local bodies
for much longer and nobody cared.
Q: Will this body play a key role in the new electoral reforms
process? If so how?
A: That really is a function of Parliament. We will be asked
to make input in that process. At that time, we can say some helpful
What is the best option? First Past-the-Post (FPP) or Proportional
Representation (PR)? The discussions favour FPP with a mix, to ensure
that minorities (whether by opinion or ethnicity) also get a chance,
when they live distributed all over the country and unable to get
elected under the FPP.
In what proportion are FPP and PR to be mixed? Some like 70% FPP and
30% PR while others like a 60-40 combo. The approved local government
amendments provide for 1/3 for PR.
As for election finances, contesting under PR in a large district and
reaching electors is expensive. Only the rich can afford it. Under the
FPP system, one focuses on the small electorate where one lives, knowing
the voters well and campaigning is affordable. This is why all kinds of
criminals and insurgents are in Parliament under the present PR system.
It is troubling that even if 10% of the seats based on PR, criminals
will still have an edge. How do we retain the advantages of PR while
switching to the FPP?
Women are under-represented in parliament today. The new local
government proposals stipulate a 30% seat allocation for women. Critics
object that our women will not come forward or that those who do are
likely to be their husbands’ puppets.
Similar arguments were used against African Americans, especially
those with poor education. However, African Americans persons were
ultimately accommodated and have grown into their positions – and we
have President Barack Obama. Women too will find their own positions. We
must also have better lower-caste representation.
Delimitation, especially in mixed population areas, needs caution.
Countering efforts at gerrymandering – drawing boundaries to split one
group or ethnicity into various constituencies to deny them their own
MP– is challenging.
For example, the old Jaffna electorate stretched from Colombogam to
Navanthurai along the coast, giving a strong voice to fisherfolk,
especially now as the educated have fled the area. Even the Federal
Party (FP) had to nominate C.X. Martyn in 1970 to beat the Vellalas –
Alfred Duraiappah and G.G. Ponnambalam. But because Martyn’s caste links
to the Vellala hierarchy were absent, in time, he worked with Sirimavo
Bandaranaike and her United Left Front (ULF). The 1977 elections saw V.
Yogeswaran, a Vellala, coming on the coattails of the Vaddukoddai
Resolution. After the introduction of PR, that near-sure fisherfolk seat
vanished. Today, Vellalas are having nightmares that a fisher-caste TNA
man from the Northern Provincial Council, Emmanuel Arnold, will be the
They also want the Nallur Temple to be part of Jaffna. There is
therefore a move to gerrymander the predominantly Vellala Nallur
electorate as a part of Jaffna. The main advocate is a TNA nominee to
the Delimitation Committee who turned down Christians applying to the
university. The fisherfolk had just that one seat. Is it right to take
In the depopulated North and the East, Tamil seats are down,
increasing the Tamil sense of insecurity. Yet, it is conventional wisdom
in a democracy that minorities be given more representation than their
numbers merit to make them feel secure and a part of the State. How can
this be done?
Q: The local government election is around the corner. This
will be among your first tasks to handle, as an independent body. How
are you preparing for it?
A: I look forward to it, particularly to have 30% women on
board. It will be a pleasure for the Commission to certify their
election. I am told that we will need 90 days to prepare after the
Q: Do you believe Sri Lanka can gain experience from other
countries on election processes?
A: Of course, just as much as we can teach others how to stand
up to dictatorial regimes.
Q: There are many flaws in the current electoral system. We
lack clear policies and guidelines on poll campaigns, laws on
controlling poll-related violence and related issues. The preferential
system is extremely unpopular. How do you see a way out of these complex
issues that affect our electoral processes?
A: We still do all right. Even the US has problems with
electronic voting. I wish we never go back to the rigged referendum of
December 1982 and the JVP resurgence that it spawned, wiping out all
Now, we have an Independent Election Commission with bright staff.
Even engineers have elected to come here after passing the SLAS exams.
They all took risks and came out on top during the two 2015 elections.
Thanks to Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, there is multiculturalism
practiced at the Commission.
Because of how Mahinda Deshapriya is written in Tamil, a Vanni
farmer, told me that he is a Tamil and because of that he is very fair
to us. Unlike certain Sinhalese Deshapriya, does not hide his Tamil
antecedents, proudly saying that his grandmother was Tamil. And unlike
many Tamils, he does not hide his non-farmer caste. These augur well for
the inclusion, enfranchisement and empowerment of the marginalized.
I think these are good times for democracy. Challenges remain. But we
shall overcome together.