Choose democracy over dictatorship- EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya | Sunday Observer

Choose democracy over dictatorship- EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya
Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya says a silver streak in the present electoral system is an imminent demand for democratizing our political parties in the immediate aftermath of the election.

“There will be a compulsion for all political parties to maintain democracy over dictatorship, starting from the point of selecting candidates for elections. If the country did not move towards this, the new electoral system will never reap expected results” he said.

He said, the new electoral system has brought in the ‘nomination poraya’ in place of the ‘manapa poraya’, and if the electors/ general masses are not educated, violence is bound to be part of the country’s elections.

Speaking on creative propaganda on new year’s eve, he warned candidates that cheaters will be rejected by the voters on February 10.

The excerpts of the interview,

Q. There is an allegation that the party secretary has become ‘omnipotent’ under the present system of election?

A. Not the Secretary, the party hierarchy/ leadership is the almighty. For this system to be fully effective, we must have intra party democracy. Most of the parties already have national councils, central committee, executive committee, and office bearers. But we don’t know how effective these structures are, or what powers they yield, if at all.

Soon after the results of the upcoming election is announced, I think, the campaign for intra party democracy would begin. We have to go there. Party leaders cannot dictate terms to the members. These are only hopes, we live on hopes.

I must say, this is not the view of the Election Commission but my personal view.

The Commission however believes, for the country to have democracy, we need democratic societies and political parties.

Q. Can the party secretaries remove elected candidates and appoint fresh members to the LG bodies?

A. There are two types of members, members to be elected and members to be returned from the list. Any political party can sack their members from the party, but in keeping with the proper procedure. If they do not abide by the law, the sacked members can seek court intervention.

Q. The election law dictated that out of the full nomination list 25% should be female candidates. To fulfil this requirement the parties were forced to pick on any individual available, before the nomination deadline. After the election can the parties get rid of these seemingly ‘incognizant’ new faces? Is it allowed?

A. The winning parties must appoint the winning candidate. The law is very strict, especially, on the numbers of female candidates. Of the total number of members representing a political party at the LG body, the females must constitute 25%.

But there is a clause, if any party gets only one or two seats, there is no requirement to appoint a female, but if there are three seats, the third member must definitely be a female.

Q. Can they bring in outsiders to fill the seats?

A. No. We will not allow it. There are court cases in the past and we will act on that.

Q. The Preferential voting system was done away with, to minimize poll related violence. Do you think this action has reaped the expected objectives?

A. We had the PR system earlier, Proportional Representation, that was PR without ‘Manape’. Then came PR system with Preferential votes. PR without Preferences was deemed not democratic; it was the party secretaries’ system. The important thing is that under the PR system, every vote has the same value unlike the First Past the Post System (FPP). Under FPP if there are three candidates in the fray and out of 100 votes if two candidates obtain 33 each and the third candidate receives 34 votes, the candidate with 34 will be elected and the other two would be losers.

But with the PR system, all three will get one seat each. If there is a bonus seat the candidate with 34 votes will get the bonus seat as well. That is some sort of a fair system. If there was no Proportional Representation in 1999, the SLFP would have secured less than 10 seats, but the PR system secured them about 55 seats.

When I said the PR system is the best, I referred to the Proportional Representation not the preferential voting system. Preferences are good in a sense that the voters can select their preferred candidate out of a list of candidates, in addition to the political party of their choice.

But under the FPP, the party hierarchy nominates the candidates of their like to run the LG bodies. They nominate the members. The Chairman of course was always nominated by the party secretary. Yet, I think there is one silver streak on the new electoral system. There will be a compulsion for all political parties to maintain democracy over dictatorship, starting from the point of selecting candidates for elections. Intra party democracy will be the most important thing, if we have the mixed member PR system. Political parties may have to establish district branches, etc.

Q. Do you think the election under the current system will be more peaceful ?

A. I don’t agree with the perception that preferential system breeds violence. The 2015 Parliamentary election was held under the old system. But there was no violence. The best thing is to educate the voters.

Q. Do you think that doing away with the Preferential votes was a good thing ?

A. My personal view is not relevant because the law makers decided that only the PR system is enough, even a prominent Tamil politician echoed this sentiment. He said we had enough of this ‘Manapa business’.

Now, only the nomination ‘poraya’ is there. The best solution is to ensure more citizens’ involvement in politics. It should not be a business of only the politicians. People must get involved in deciding who should represent them in public office. Just like the ‘vote’, politics is also a right of the people.

If we don’t change the country’s political culture the new electoral system will not work. Some would say, I am dreaming.

Q. There are allegations that criminals and their relatives have been given nominations to contest the forthcoming election. Can the Election Commission make any interventions in such cases?

A. The underworld or criminals, it is not our duty to get in the way of people’s franchise rights. If they have not been disqualified at the time of nominations, there is nothing we can do. Even the law allows a ‘convict’ to contest an election after seven years of his punishment. If he is a bad person voters can reject that person by not voting for his party. There are guidelines to disqualify candidates at the point of accepting nominations, but if he fulfils those obligations, nothing can be done after that.

Q. Is it a possibility to call for a police report along with the nomination lists to ensure that criminals and law breakers are prevented from contesting elections?

A. That must come from Parliament, legislators must decide on that. But I think an affidavit from the candidates declaring he has not committed any serious offence and had not been a convict in a serious crime will suffice. This is not a requirement today.

Even ‘Angulimala’ was forgiven by Lord Buddha when the former was ready to correct himself. As we all know the active members of 1971 and 1989 insurgencies served in Parliament eventually. So this is a tricky area.

Q. What do you consider as the biggest headache in the run up to the election this time around?

A. Holding the election is the biggest headache. There are 57,000 candidates. My staff has to cross check their names, e. g. the name ‘Mohamed’, can be spelt in six different ways. They need to tally it with the nomination paper in all three languages. That headache is over now and we have sent the candidates lists to be printed.

The complaints on election law violations are another headache. I received a post card yesterday. A resident from Maharagama is complaining that there is a cut out of a female candidate on a street lamp post in front of his house.

This complaint has to go to the nearest police station or to the election office in the area, not to the Election Commission Chairman. These can also be referred to [email protected]. But people keep ringing me and writing to us.

Q. How do you deal with creative propaganda? For instance, there is a propaganda poster in and around Colombo 10 area, where a candidate is wishing the voters a Happy New Year.

A. That is not creative, that is cheating. They are trying to cheat and rob the election. They are not being creative. If they wish to greet the people, law does not stop them from sending greetings or leaflets to voters’ households. But posters, hoardings, placards of any type are prohibited. No one is allowed to do that, not even to promote someone else’s campaign. They should be arrested and put behind bars, but unfortunately the fine is just Rs.100.

We have advised the police to call the violators to the police stations and warn them. It is a sad state of affairs and such political culture is something that we must end.

We are spending millions of rupees to remove these illegal election propaganda, the funds come from the poor tax payers’ pocket.

Q. Several media personnel are contesting the election this time. Has it become an issue as far as media election guidelines are concerned?

A. We have sent letters to the media heads, and asked not to use their articles related to the election until the election is over because they are bound to be biased towards the party under which they are contesting.

And, for the electronic media also we have asked them not to give undue publicity to their employees contesting the election. So far they have been very cooperative, even the electronic media is following the guidelines issued by the Election Commission.

One candidate is representing state TV and another is from a private TV station. The newspaper journalist is from a regional newspaper in the Northern Province.

We have also promised the media heads that we will not exert too much pressure. However, they must give everyone an equal share of their air time. They should not highlight stories that might be partial to the government or any other political party in the fray. This is to ensure a fair playing ground for all. We have four political parties contesting more than 300 Councils all over the country – that is UPFA/SLFP, UNP, JVP and SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna)

We have four other parties contesting over 40 councils in the North and East - SLMC , ACMC, TULF, ACTC. The United National Freedom Front is contesting 64 councils. All other parties are contesting less than 25 councils.

Q. The Postal Department has threatened strike action targeting the election ?

A. I hope they will not do it. The Postal Department is working with us very closely. About 25-30 years ago there was a move to privatize the Postal Department, which was abandoned because the Election Department intervened.

We convinced the government that the Postal Department played an important part in the elections process.

But if they decide to go on strike we would have to find alternative means to ensure the election is held as planned. In 1988 and 1989, there were general strikes, but the elections were held on schedule.

I hope the Postal Department workers will help to safeguard the universal franchise. I kindly ask them not to disrupt the holding of the election.

Q. The President has said that the number of LG members, which stands at over 8,000 now, is a huge burden on the people and he will look into ways of reducing the number of members.

A. In future, it has to be done. Before 1997, there were nearly than 9,000 members - PC, TC, UC and MC members. But they were not paid like today.

Q. Has there been enough awareness on the new electoral system, are voters familiar with the new voting process?

A. We have to do that. The ballot paper will have only the party symbol and the name, and also the details of the independent groups.

There are no marking of preferences. The voter has to put only one cross on the party or the independent group he is casting his vote for.

Then he has to fold it, show the official seal on the reverse to the Polling Officer and put it into the ballot box.

Pic: Manjula Fernando