Loopholes in election law obscure true mandate-Polls monitors | Sunday Observer

Loopholes in election law obscure true mandate-Polls monitors

Election monitors said that in the absence of clear cut laws to stop ill-conceived or bogus opinion polls aimed at manipulating the voters, the National Election Commission (NEC) may not be able to ensure clean elections to reflect the true community sentiments.

They said there were attempts to confuse the voters, despite efforts by the National Election commission to ensure that the political parties or candidates don’t take the voters for a ride.

The NEC has issued directives against fielding proxy candidates at the upcoming Presidential Election. Fresh restrictions have been clamped on registering new political parties and naming roads, play grounds and buildings after politicians’ living politicians. The deposits by candidates contesting the election have been increased to discourage attempts to field proxies. “The safeguards are there yet they fall short of outwitting the tricksters,” PAFFREL Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said.

“In some countries, even academic research on the outcome of a public poll cannot be published during an election period as it could influence the final result, but in Sri Lanka, we don’t have such laws,” he said. He referred to a recently launched e-canvassing campaign by the SLPP that questioned the voters. “Such moves can also be interpreted as an attempt to influence voters free will,” he said.

Such campaigns are certainly not ethical and are deemed illegal in other countries, he said. It has been a popular trend during elections to conduct the so called people’s opinion studies to predict who will win the election. The opinion polls are carried out via SMS, media or house-to-house canvassing. “Such attempts can be used to artificially create public opinion which violates the basic principles of democracy,” he said.

“The political parties must ensure that their victory is not tarnished by tricks,” Hettiarachchi said, adding that this is the only way to make sure that their candidate or the party is the preferred choice of the people to serve the country and its people.

A former National Election Commission senior officer said, in Sri Lanka there were no laws to ban opinion polls prior to an election and sometimes, they are conducted even during elections. The NEC at the last general election banned such opinion polls during the election phase since they were obviously targeted to influence the outcome of the polls.

Of tricks used to smokescreen voters, a senior NEC official said the technology is being used to manipulate poll related material on social media. “I heard a credible complaint that some groups have ‘socbots’ to interact on discussions in the social media.”

Such advanced software can be used to sway the conversations on social media to benefit a particular candidate.

“Socbots can do differently worded posts by thousands, seemingly from different persons, and distort the debate on social media. It is made to seem that the overwhelming majority support an obviously flawed candidate with outrageously undemocratic traits, that candidate can be mainstreamed and the vote distorted in his or her favour.”

“The NEC has no power to intervene in such instances like that”, he said adding, “We do not have the technology to identify that this is happening.” 

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