Election laws and free polls
The attention of the entire country is now focussed on the nation’s sixth presidential poll that will be conducted in 37 days. The process entered the final phases last Thursday (17), when nominations were received.

Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake, presiding on the occasion, made a few salient observations, and this would be an opportune moment as any, to reflect on these thoughts from the long-suffering Commissioner, who is serving well past his retirement, despite serious health concerns.

Commissioner Dissanayake observed that an Elections Commission- modelled on the lines of the Commission in India, could be a progressive step in eliminating most of the problems associated with elections in this country. Nothing went wrong in India, so there is no reason why it should not succeed in Sri Lanka, Dissanayake said.
In the run up to this election, there have been disputes about the use of the State media and the use of ‘cut-outs’ to promote candidates, the latter being a clear violation of election laws.

Commissioner Dissanayake was quite clear about what could be done when election laws are flouted. The Police Department and the Inspector General of Police should act in accordance with law, the Commissioner argued, saying that the existing legal framework was quite sufficient for the Police to act without fear or favour.

Already, the President himself has ordered that his ‘cut-outs’ be removed immediately, and that is indeed commendable. However, whether the presidential orders are carried out to the letter is left to be seen, and we sincerely hope that the Police would have the courage to do so, in the interests of a free and fair election.

As for the alleged abuses in the State-run media, we are aware that the matter is now before the Supreme Court. The Commissioner has been met by opposition parties who want him to intervene by appointing a competent authority to regulate election related material in the media, in the campaigning period, but the Commissioner will no doubt be guided by what the Supreme Court determines.

The Commissioner also noted that there were 22 candidates in the fray for the January 26 election, the highest number of candidates for a presidential election in this country. He was also mindful that this could be because some candidates could use the air time allocated to them to promote other candidates, which he said was a blatant violation of election law.

Obviously, the Commissioner does not believe that more is merrier in this instance, and he is probably right. The amounts of money required from candidates to pay as deposits have been determined many years ago, and have not been revised for some time now.

As a result, Rs 50,000 and Rs 75,000 deposits required from political party candidates and independent candidates respectively, are ridiculously low in these inflation ridden days. Here, an overhaul of the law, as the Commissioner pointed out, is urgently necessary, or we may see the spectacle of over a hundred candidates at the next presidential election!

The Commissioner did rule, using the powers at his disposal, that only previously approved officers such as grama niladharis, could issue temporary identity cards that would establish a person’s integrity at the time of voting.

This is a commendable step indeed, but obviously, more needs to be done between now and January 26, because there are hundreds of thousands of potential voters without valid proof of identity- and they need to be informed of this requirement, instead of becoming aware of it on polling day.

The Commissioner’s comments, timely as they are, are a reflection on the dire need for a significant overhaul of our election laws. What we have seen in the recent past is an indefatigable Commissioner who has been working very hard at democratising the process of electioneering- but he has been handicapped because, although he is able to identify potential threats to democracy, he has only a few legal teeth to deal with them.

This is a glaring lapse in our system, and what political parties will do well to remember is that, what is to their advantage today, will work against them tomorrow- if they are on the ‘other’ side, be it the ruling party or the opposition.

This is also a time when the entire nation is contemplating serious and significant Constitutional reforms, in the aftermath of ending the separatist war, as a means of establishing permanent peace in this country. We are indeed at a critical crossroads in post-independent Sri Lanka, and such a Constitutional overhaul is the need of the hour.

If our leaders have the foresight that eluded their predecessors for the past 60 years, they would surely introduce a fairer election system backed by the necessary legislation, without further ado. That will be a small step for a government, but a giant stride for democracy in Sri Lanka- and finally, Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake could get to enjoy his retirement too!