News Features

Vigilant public has right to protest

Poster war even after nominations

The Western Provincial Council elections are set to be held on April 25 and already candidites of all political parties are busy campaigning, often violating election laws. According to the Provincial Councils Elections Act 1988 it is illegal to display, handbills, placard posters, drawings, notices and photographs of a candidate but the smiling faces that stare at us from almost each wall, bus halt, and lamppost reminds us that no one really cares about abiding by the election laws

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Propaganda Secretary Vijitha Herath

Q: What is the JVP opinion of the use of posters in the election?
We do not cover the walls with posters because they do not have individual candidates fighting for preferential votes. The JVP only carries out poster campaigns only if there is a rally or a meeting at a specific area he added. “According to the Provincial Councils Elections Act (No. 2 of 1988) - Sect 75 it is said that we can display handbills, placard posters, drawings, notices, photographs of a candidate, in or any premises on any day on which an election meeting is due. So we are not breaking the law.

Q: Why is this law not abided by many?
It’s a matter of discipline. Many politicians think that this is a law that is meant to be broken, specially the government politicians. There are so many loopholes and the police are powerless against the political might.

By Rathindra Kuruwita
Election posters have been a part of Sri Lankan election campaigns for decades and due to its omnipresence, it is an effective method of communicating a message and influencing the voters. In the past election posters have played a crucial role in forming public opinion and they also reveal a country`s political culture.

Although election law makes displaying of posters and hoardings illegal after nominations are handed over Sri Lankan politicians continuously ignore them spending vast amounts of money causing massive environmental damage through millions of posters pasted at almost any accessible surface.

Is there such a law?

According to the Provincial Councils Elections Act 1988 it is illegal to display posters and hoardings after the nominations are handed over but no one really seem to care. On the contrary it seems that candidates have stepped up their poster campaign after political parties and independent groups have handed their nominations on Thursday.

“The main problem lies in the electoral system and the apathy of the people,” Dr. Jayathissa Costa, prominent lawyer, one time chairman of the Law Council and a man who possesses a PhD in election laws. “Public should try to support and initiate the police into taking action against these law breakers. Even in England the situation was bad and it was the angry and vigilant citizens that cleared up the mess,” he explained.

Costa said that according to the Provincial Councils Elections Act (No. 2 of 1988) Section 75, displaying handbills, posters and cutouts is illegal ‘during the period commencing from the first day of the nomination period at an election and ending on the day following the day on which a poll is taken at such election. “The police can remove the posters and take action against people who engage in such activities. In the same section it is clearly stated that people who violate these laws can be convicted after summary trial before a Magistrate, and fined or imprisoned,” he said.

United National Party General Secretary Tissa Attanayake

Q: What is the UNP opinion of the use of posters in the election?
Posters have been a part of our election culture for decades and although the Provincial Councils Elections Act of 1988 has made it clear that posters cannot be displayed after nominations are handed over the law has not been enforced at all. It was not this competitive back then and I don’t think that until mid 1990s things were this competitive.
Q: Has the UNP taken any action to make sure that their candidates abide by the law on posters and hoardings?
We have always asked our candidates to abide by the election laws and ask them to advertise via print and electronic media. But that is not always possible for all candidates to spend so much money on media.

According to the law the candidates can only display posters, cutouts, pictures or banners only at their residence, office or their vehicle after the nominations. But unfortunately this rule is openly breached by many candidates and the police are helpless to take effective action against it because of the huge volume of violations and sometimes because of the political influence. “Despite the fact that these laws have been in existence for over 20 years no one has been able to take effective action against posters,” Costa said.

Posters are also an environmental menace and a burden on the economy of the country, as large amounts of resources have to be used to remove these posters said environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane. “Each time they use thousands of kilos of plastic and other pollutant material it becomes a major impact on the environment and the drainage system,” he said. “The cost of removing Sri Lankan presidential election posters and cutouts exhibited in 2005 was around eight million rupees. And it was an election where there were only two men. In this case one has to multiply that amount,” he added.

What’s so great about posters?

Despite availability of other media, the belief that posters are the most effective method of communication is still widespread. One of the main contenders for the Colombo District, UPFA Provincial Councilor R. Duminda Silva told The Nation that the effectiveness of the posters can not be underestimated. “Posters can get the message across and a lot of people see it. I have displayed posters before the nominations were handed over but now I have stopped,” he said.

UPFA Colombo District candidate Udaya Gammanpila

Q: As the former CEA Chairman you have claimed that you will not use posters in your campaign. How do you expect to conduct a campaign without the use of posters?
The world has moved forward and there are new methods to conduct a campaign, especially in the Colombo District, almost everyone has mobile phones and most have access to the internet and the e-mail facility. We can do a very effective campaign by using these new methods and I think it is more effective than traditional above and below the line methods. This is how Obama won the election and it is very practical in the Western province.
Q: How important are posters for an election campaign?
As much as I hate to admit it, a lot. It’s a cheap and effective way of getting the message across. But on the other hand there is massive environmental damage and it will also be a great burden to the economy as the Government has to remove them.

Media advisor to another top UPFA candidate claimed that posters are cheaper and has longer life compared to other mediums. There is so much clutter in electronic and print media and to have a proper effect one must advertise on all major newspapers, radio stations and TV channels he claimed. “It’s simply too expensive. Some might have a big budget but even so many feel that it is not very effective. I can print a set of 50 000 posters for Rs. 300,000- 400,000, the same amount that I can place a full page ad on a newspaper but I am sure that the posters will have the bigger impact. If they remain on the walls for two days millions of people would see them,” he said.

The logic of that statement cannot be denied, even by politicians who claim that they will not use posters in their campaign. UPFA Colombo District candidate and former Chairman of the Central Environment Authority (CEA) Udaya Gammanpila told The Nation although his campaign will be ‘free of polythene and posters’ its ‘almost impossible’ to conduct an election campaign without resorting to posters.

“It is very difficult for the candidate not to resort to posters and hoardings because of the current electoral system. No candidate has the capability or the human resources to conduct a proper door to door campaign and depending solely on media is too expensive,” he said “But I don’t want to use posters and hoardings because of the immense harm it causes to the environment. It’s hard to imagine the massive environmental pollution and the amount of government money that is spent during and after each election to take care of the mess,” he added.

What lies beneath?

According to many law experts this issue cannot be resolved without a total change in the election system. As long as the proportional voting system is present and the candidates within a party have to contest against each other, the candidates will ignore the immense ecological damage and the election laws claimed, Dr. Jayatissa Costa.

“The problem lies in the fact that this law is suitable for the election system that was in place before 1977, an era before proportional representation, and an era where the first pass the post system was prevalent. If that system was still functioning there would have been no need for such an intense poster campaign,” he said. “But when there is such an immense competition not only against the opposition political parties but also candidates from your own political party, the candidates will loose sight on all except winning,” he said.

To compete in a relatively small election like the Provincial Council election a candidate will need to spend at least five to six million rupees on his campaign and when someone spends such an amount he needs to try to earn it back because otherwise he will not have enough money to campaign the next time. So either they have to be millionaires or have a sponsor who would expect something back for the investment, which would mean that there is always space for corruption.

“In the past there were so many professionals in our administrative bodies but now they are replaced by businessman. The proportional system favours the rich and the powerful,” he added.

Short term measures

Police have been accused by many for the continuous violation of election laws. While the police claim that they are doing the best they could, opposition political parties claim that the police turn a blind eye on the actions of government politicians. But this time the Elections Commissioner has requested the IGP to remove all the posters and cutouts and the DIG elections, B. K.G. Nawaratne told The Nation that the police have already started removing posters, banners and cutouts.

“Elections Commissioner sent a special report to the IGP complaining about the massive poster campaign in the Colombo City. The Police with the aid of the relevant local and municipal councils took action from last Friday to remove the posters and cutouts,” he said. “The actions of indisciplined candidates are really deplorable. The police have other concerns at the time when the LTTE has resorted to desperate actions. When we need to be really concentrated in resolving the terrorist menace we have to also take care of this,” he said. “In the past we faced many problems because of the sheer number but this time we hope to take severe action against it,” he added.