Array of candidates sparks fears of voter confusion | Sunday Observer

Array of candidates sparks fears of voter confusion

In the backdrop of the National Election Commission revealing the stupendous costs that will almost certainly be involved in the upcoming Presidential election - due to the ridiculously high number of candidates running for the presidency - there are calls for serious action to revise the election laws.

Among all the negative features of this election, the most outrageous will be having to spend nearly Rs.3 billion more to accommodate the extra names in the candidates list - this despite the fact that these names will have a zero bearing on the final outcome.

A former constitutional affairs minister and leader of the Communist Party, D.E.W. Gunesekera said that a good number of candidates in a presidential election, is a sign of a sound democracy, but unfortunately the Sri Lanka’s situation is different, because many of these candidates are mere ‘dummies’ for major parties.

“There are 70 recognized political parties in the country. Six of them are currently inactive due to court cases. If all of them field candidates next time, and if some retired MPs also decide to run for the Presidency we will soon have elections with 100 candidates running. (for the Presidential office)”, the Communist Party Leader said.

This is not democracy, I say it is an abuse of democracy, some of the candidates come to the fray for personal advantages at the cost of public funds, he added.

This huge sum of money is spent to elect a nominal president whose powers have been drastically pruned under the 19th amendment.

The CP leader said some political parties have become gold mines for the owners. “They lease out the party at election time, it is a big business,” he said adding,” I think we have to go for drastic changes to the elections law.”

A candidate who failed to obtain nominations to contest the upcoming election attested to this trend. Failed candidate Nagananda Kodituwakku said he was unceremoniously dumped by the party that was supposed to back his nomination, and sold the rights to another candidate.

“In 1959, S.W.R.D.Bandranaike proposed a law to make the national ID compulsory to vote at elections, it passed into law in 2009, more than five decades later. I was the Constitutional affairs minister then, and Dinesh Gunawardena was the Chairman of the Select Committee at the time. It took two years for me to convince the president, Prime Minister and the Opposition leader,to agree,” Gunesekera said adding that important amendments to the elections law are not very easy to bring into existence.

He said “Elderly voters will take a minimum of five minutes to cast their vote at the booth as it will be a struggle to find the party and the symbol of their choice among 35 listed names.”

PAFFREL Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said,”I think there are only 10 genuine candidates in the fray this time,” adding that sadly the election has been turned into some sort of a mind game. “I think new laws to block dummy candidates are a must and there is no question about it,“ he stressed. Hettiarachchi said there will be a lot of voter confusion at the polling booth as even the main parties are contesting under different names of their broad political alliances and new election symbols which are not familiar to voters, especially the elderly, who comprise much of the country’s voter population. Therefore, he was of the opinion that even without a long list of candidates, delays are to be expected during the poll.

However the election law strictly restricts the polling time, from 7.00am to 4.00pm. He proposed a number of measures to overcome this in the future. I personally think the deposit must be raised to at least Rs1 million. The Election Commission chairman said the deposit should be at least be 2.5 million if rupee depreciation is to be counted. The value of the rupee has drastically changed and we haven’t updated the laws ever, to adjust for this.

Hettiarachchi said a new penalty system to fine candidates who fail to garner a stipulated minimum number of votes at the election, will also be a deterrent to dummy candidates. Fielding dummy candidates can also be made an offence under the public property’s act. It can be deemed a misuse of public property meriting legal action since holding elections involves state funds.

He said such action will ensure that the significant number of candidates who contest the election for various personal agenda’s, get cold feet. “At earlier elections we have seen some candidates abandon their campaigns half way through, and pledge their support to a stronger candidate in the race. They hope the winning candidate will return their favour with a “top job” in the next government. Some candidates enter the fray merely as a publicity stunt.

PAFFREL Executive Director suggested only active political parties be made eligible to field candidates for a presidential election.

Leader of Tamil Progressive Alliance and Minister, Mano Ganesan, said the government brought in two important amendments to the presidential elections law –to restrict the number of presidential terms to two and prevent a dual citizen from running for the country’s presidency.

“The responsibility to review and update outdated laws lies with the legislature and the National Election Commission. As a member of the legislature, I am ashamed that we could not prevent this huge waste of public funds, “ he said.

“The NEC cannot wash its hands of responsibility by saying it’s the duty of the politicians, they should have given an early warning of this situation. Unfortunately its too late now. We must all get together leaving political and other differences aside and review all outdated election laws.

CMEV Executive Director Manjula Gayanayake however said the election Commission last year brought together all political parties represented in parliament on to a single platform to review and prepare amendments to all the outdated election Acts and Ordinances. “The major political parties who should have taken the lead in this effort showed lack of commitment,” he said adding that the failure was on the part of the parliamentarians.

The Election Commission Chairman last week reiterated that view. “We have to uphold the rights of people to contest the election. We cannot deny that right to anyone but I agree that there needs to be some streamlining. “

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