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A corona-clouded election in Sri Lanka sets a new welcome trend

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set a fine example of neutrality of the public service in the forthcoming general elections by instructing that no public official serving in the security forces, government service, corporations, boards, and statutory bodies should engage in political activities, writes Sugeeswara Senadhira for South Asia Monitor


At a time when true democrats in Sri Lanka are concerned about the rapid deterioration in the elections over the last few decades, they see a silver lining in the dark clouds of COVID-19 pandemic. The new health regulations and social distancing rule have made a remarkable development in the election campaign for the general elections slated for August 5. Their earnest hope is that the new method of electioneering becomes a permanent feature in Sri Lankan elections.

Although Sri Lanka has a proud history of nearly 90 years of universal franchise, the elections have not reached the desired maturity as many experiments of different polling systems have resulted in a devastating decline in electioneering over the years. When the system of electing representatives for small constituencies ended and very large districts became electorates, only the candidates with large sums of money could afford campaign in the entire district in an effective manner. The chances of small party candidates or independents diminished gradually and now it is almost impossible for an independent group to win seats unless a powerful political party extends support for reasons of political expediency.

Polls in COVID shadow

Despite the failure of all the attempts to change the lopsided ‘preferential vote’ or the representative system, this time there is a relatively less money play in the election campaigns due to the social distancing made mandatory by the health authorities due to COVID-19 pandemic and rigid implementation of the ban on massive cut-outs and posters, announced by the Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya. He also banned the use of public property for electioneering. He set an excellent example by ordering the police to immediately seize five official vehicles, which were not returned by former state ministers as there were complaints that the official vehicles were used for election campaigning. “The vehicles should have been returned to the State on March 2. State ministers no longer exist since the dissolution of Parliament and therefore official vehicles must be returned,” he said. 

The errant former ministers were informed that if they use official vehicles after that date, Rs. 100,000 should be deposited for each vehicle. But some former ministers have used vehicles without making that deposit. Deshapriya, known for his stern stance, said that if it is proved that they violated the law, after seizing the vehicles, there is a possibility of them losing their seats if they are elected at the general elections.

The Election Commission had received complaints that religious places were being used to hold meetings to promote candidates and political parties. “Using religious places for election activities are illegal. If we get a petition that a candidate used a religious place for election activities and the allegation is proved, the candidate will lose his seat following the general elections. Also, the civil rights of such candidates could be revoked as well,” he warned. 

President sets an example

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set a fine example of neutrality of the public service in the forthcoming general elections by instructing that no public official serving in the security forces, government service, corporations, boards, and statutory bodies should engage in political activities. The public sector neutrality is a healthy democratic practice and it will further strengthen the commitment to holding a free, fair, and peaceful election.

Furthermore, President Rajapaksa ordered not to use his photographs by candidates contesting the upcoming election in their propaganda campaign. Last week, Secretary to the President P.B. Jayasundera in a letter sent to all Governors, Ministry Secretaries, District and Provincial Secretaries, Heads of Corporations, Boards and Statutory Bodies and other heads of divisions stated that information has been received to the effect that candidates contesting the election are using the photographs of the President in their campaign, secure service of the Army officers and public officials and promise job appointments.

The President has instructed his Secretary to strictly advise relevant parties not to use his photograph in the election campaign and the public officials to refrain from engaging in political activities. The Secretary in his letter to Governors, Ministry Secretaries and Heads of entities, with a copy to the Chairman of the Elections Commission has instructed to ensure that all the government officials strictly follow these orders.

A no-frills election

Although the ban on display of posters and cutouts existed in election regulations, it was not properly implemented on earlier occasions. Last week the Elections Commission announced that it had banned public rallies, street processions, parades, posters, banners, and cut-outs in support of the candidates contesting next month's polls. The police have been instructed to strictly implement the regulations and to take legal action against the violators.

Elections Commission chairman Deshapriya urged candidates, their political parties, and supporters to abide by elections laws and ensure a free and fair poll. Deshapriya added that the candidates should organize door to door visits to canvass for votes and not more than five persons should join in such visits.

To ensure that candidates can disseminate their policies and preferential numbers allocated to them to the voters, leaflets can be distributed. The candidates also can use electronic media advertisements for this purpose. Deshapriya said that individuals from different political parties have urged him to request electronic and printed media institutions to reduce election advertising rates for the general election and, accordingly, the media have reduced their advertisement rates.

Similar to election campaigns in advanced democracies, Sri Lanka is also set for an election campaign that is by and large restricted to leaflets, policy documents, and political publications distributed house to house, published in newspapers and broadcast or telecast over electronic media. Public meetings will be limited to 100 people each and there will be no large rallies causing inconvenience to the public, especially to commuters to towns and cities. 

(The writer is Director (International Media), Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. The views expressed are personal)

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