YAHAPALANA ELECTIONS AND ‘REGIME CHANGE’ Part 9
Posted on April 9th, 2018

KAMALIKA PIERIS

The local government elections of February 2018   were significant, not only for the defeat of the ruling party, but also for the bungling of the Election process. Yahapalana government did not want this election to take place, and there were obstacles all along the way.

Firstly, the nomination lists of several political parties and independent groups were rejected for unbelievably petty reasons. The SLPP nominations for Maharagama MC, Thirippane PS, Panadura UC and Agalawatte and Weligama PS  were rejected   along with SLFP list for the Padiyatalawa Pradeshiya Sabha, Badulla UC, and five LG bodies in the Northern Province.

Maharagama UC nomination list was rejected because in the column indicating the gender of the candidate, the gender of one female candidate had inadvertently been entered as ‘male’. Panadura UC nomination list was rejected because the Justice of the Peace, attesting the signature of the Party general secretary had failed to state the date on which the endorsement was made, below his signature.

Weligama UC, nomination list was also rejected. The authorized person had gone to hand in four nomination papers with a lawyer. The authorized person had handed in the first nomination paper and had then been distracted for a moment by another official and during that short period, the lawyer had handed in the second paper. The authorized person had then handed in the remaining two papers. The three papers handed in by the authorized person had been accepted while the paper that was handed in by the lawyer was rejected on the grounds that it had not been handed in by the correct person.

In the case of the Agalawatte PS, The date on the nomination paper had been written as 17 December 2017 instead of 14 December 2017. In the Mahiyangana PS nomination paper everything else was ok, but the column indicating the gender of the candidates had been left blank. In the Tirappane PS nomination list, the box on which the date of handing in of nominations had been left blank.

Do any of the instances mentioned above strike an ordinary voter as reasonable grounds on which an entire nomination paper should be rejected? asked Chandraprema. They are   flimsy reasons. Returning officers must use their commonsense and also must give time for candidates to rectify any errors in the nominations paper, observed Chandraprema.

The affected political parties went to   the law courts regarding these rejections. Supreme Court rejected the petitions without taking them up for hearing. They observed that Section 31(1) of the Local Government Elections Ordinance said “The decision of the returning officer to reject such nomination paper shall be final and conclusive”. Therefore they could do nothing.

This means that there will be no recourse in law if a Returning Officer rejects a nomination paper, commented Chandraprema. This shows the completely arbitrary power that Elections Commission has in accepting or rejecting nomination papers in Sri Lanka. This rejection of nomination lists should be taken up by the public because this is a matter involving the people’s franchise, concluded Chandraprema.

There were other obstacles too. When an election comes around, the first thing that we hear is the Elections Commissioner bellowing that those who try to disrupt the election will be shot in the head. Then we hear him listing the punishments that will befall those who violate elections laws. At the last elections we heard him saying that those who hold meetings in temples will be lose their civic rights for seven years. Indeed at election time, the candidates are treated like felons or convicts by the Elections Commission, observed Chandraprema.

There was also a report in the newspapers that the former Ududumbara PS Chairman, one Senarath Bandara who had been caught putting up posters had been arrested, hauled before a Magistrate, and then released on two bail bonds of Rs. 50,000 each and the vehicle he used to transport the posters released on a bond of Rs. 6 million.

The Magistrate had also warned the hapless candidate that if he is caught violating election laws again, he will be remanded until the end of the election. This was just for putting up posters, not for threatening a rival candidate or causing any real harm to anybody. This is obviously a case of overkill, said Chandraprema.

There was praise for the Elections Commission in certain quarters. We congratulate the Elections Commission for taking effective steps to ensure a free and fair election campaign with all parties and independent groups observing or being forced to observe rules and regulations because the Commission warned that any party or candidate violating election laws would face severe penalties, said Daily Mirror.

As a result most observers believe the elections campaign was one of the most peaceful in recent decades though a few incidents were reported and the police took swift action on the orders of the Elections Commission. A special word of thanks to Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, who not only spoke out strongly but also acted effectively to ensure that election laws were adhered to, Daily Mirror concluded.

Mr. Deshapriya went as far as objecting to a special parliamentary session being held today to debate the reports of the Commission which investigated the alleged bond scams in the Central Bank from February 2015 to March 2016 and the commission which probed serious frauds and corruption mainly during the former Rajapaksa regime. The Chairman even warned he might postpone the long-awaited and long-delayed election if Parliament broke the moratorium rule and held a debate on an apparently election-related issue, said Daily Mirror.

The Elections Commissioner, who appeared almost daily on television news and seemed to relish his appearances, announced that all polling booths will become counting centres after the polls closed. The results would be issued very quickly and would probably finish by midnight, he assured.

Elections Commission had handed over the computer tabulation of the results to University of Kelaniya, taking it away from the University of Colombo who had done the tabulation until now. University of Colombo was the pioneer in the process and did excellent work in the previous elections.

Asked why the task of tabulating election results, handled by the Colombo University for decades,  had been entrusted to the Kelaniya University, Kelaniya  said it may have been due to the additional data involved in this year’s election process. Upgrading an existing system with new software required complete restructuring and there were risks. It is like trying to install GPS navigation in a Morris Minor. It would be easier to just buy a new car with inbuilt GPS navigation. Likewise, it would be easier to establish a brand new system at Kelaniya than Colombo.

The election results tabulation software at Kelaniya is transparent, accurate and foolproof said Kelaniya University’s Computing and Technology Faculty. The system is not susceptible to hacking and is firewall and password protected. Data entry can only be entered at the district level by Returning officers and Assistant Returning officers. Kelaniya has conducted special training sessions for ROs and AROs. As there is no intermediary, data can’t be manipulated. The new system also has in place a sub system to release results to media.

Despite these announcements, the election results failed to come in on time. For the first time in history, the Elections Commission failed to announce the results of an election on time, observed Chandraprema. The country was awake and waiting .There was a long wait for results to come in.

The final results only came in the late evening of the 11th February. They were not from the Kelaniya computer either. Derana issued the results with a fleeting shot of each election sheet signed by Deshapriya, to indicate their validity.

Elections Commissioner issued a statement at 2 a.m. on Feb 11 saying that election results cannot be released to the media until they were uploaded to the database by District Returning Officers. The District Returning Officers of certain areas have only been faxed one set of election results. In order to release the overall result, a tally needs to be made and this requires considerable time. The public were requested to remain patient till they issue the results.

We are told that the release of the official results was delayed because of calculations that had to be done regarding the number of seats a political party was entitled to on the proportional representation quota, added Chandraprema. But the results of the election could have been released earlier leaving the announcement of the number of seats each party was entitled to, for later. The Chairman had also said that it was not his business to declare a final result. Apparently, the law does not specifically say that a final result should be declared following a local government election.

The Elections Commission should be censured for failing to release the election results on time, and causing a delay that has never before been experienced in this country in living memory, declared Chandraprema.

A far more dangerous development has gone almost unnoticed, continued Chandraprema, the state of near collapse of the Elections Commission. The Elections Commission is the body that makes representative democracy possible in this country. If it continues in this dysfunctional manner, it is going to place in jeopardy the entire political system that we have come to take for granted.

The state of collapse in the Elections Commission extends to all its functions,  announced Chandraprema in February 2018. For example, I wanted to do an analysis of the election results and after accessing the Elections Commission website, clicked on the tab saying ‘Election Results’. This brought up only the results of the recently concluded local government election.

Earlier, this tab provided access to a menu that had the results of past Presidential, parliamentary, provincial council and local government elections. Now all details of those past elections have vanished and all that is left are the results of the recent local government elections. These results are presented as a long list of the 340 institutions that went to the poll with a link to a page that gives the detailed result of each institution.

As there is no final aggregation and a district-wise breakdown of the election result, anyone trying to do an analysis of the results and to compare them with previous election results will have the Herculean task of preparing the district-wise breakdowns and the national aggregates himself. This is a time consuming task and explains why there have been no analyses of the elections result in the media. The Elections Commission can easily compile district wise and island-wide aggregates of the result with just a click of the mouse.

There seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the Elections Commission to prevent people from analyzing election related data by presenting election results in a manner that makes it possible only for well staffed institutions to be able to undertake such a task, said Chandraprema.

Under the new Elections Commission, the website has undergone further changes and the way the data relating to past election results is presented has also changed. Earlier, the Elections Department website presented information about past elections in generally satisfactory detail. The national final results were given, the district wise breakdowns, the polling division breakdowns, and those elected on the basis of preference votes were also indicated on the website.

When there was a new election, its results were displayed on a page that could be accessed through a highlighted link. Now there is only the result of the most recent election with no way to compare the latest result with the results of previous elections. When I say that the earlier Elections Department website had adequate information about past elections, I must add that they had only the results of elections held in the new millennium but at least this was available in a usable format.

Today, the same data that was presented earlier in a usable format is now presented as just long lists of elections results by polling division and the number of members elected and some of the more useful information like the names of the members elected and the preference votes they received have been omitted.

Things became worse with the local government election of 2018, with the Elections Commissioner himself stating that it is not his business to declare a final result. I went to the Elections Commission and asked whether I could have the detailed results of all elections from 1947 to the present day. I assumed that they would have all such details on CDs. But they had nothing. All the data that the Election commission had were on the website. And the presentation even of that limited information was done in such a manner as to make it unusable. There appears to be a deliberate whittling down of information available to the public, continued Chandraprema.

The Elections Department was functioning satisfactorily until it became an independent commission after the 19th amendment and one wonders whether there is a deliberate attempt to run down and undermine the elections mechanism in this country. One creative way to destroy the entire Sri Lankan state will be by running down the body that conducts elections declared Chandraprema in February 2018.

We  now have a situation where an Elections Commission that cannot present data relating to past elections in a proper format, and which cannot conduct an election without a major mess up in announcing the results, is  however given arbitrary power to reject nominations on the flimsiest of excuses,  concluded Chandraprema.

With the defeat of the Yahapalana government and its allies in the February 2018 elections, there had been a change of attitude in the Elections Commission. Elections Commission took note of Chandraprema’s criticisms and the web site was revamped.

For the first time, data relating to parliamentary elections going back to the first Parliamentary election in 1947 and the results of all by-elections up to the 1980s are now available on the EC website, reported an appreciative Chandraprema in April 2018. Furthermore, data relating to all presidential elections from 1982 onwards are also available. It must be said that the Elections Dept or Elections Commission website has never had as detailed information on past elections as it does at present.

There were a few shortcomings. Those elected on the basis of preference votes were available on the Provincial Councils section during the days of the Elections Dept., but we note that these details are now missing from the past election data relating to PCs. Restoring the preference vote data relating to parliamentary and PC elections will be vital to make the data available useful for researchers. Furthermore, PC elections data is available only from 2002 onwards. It will be useful to have provincial council elections data going back to the first PC elections of 1988 said Chandraprema. (Continued)

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