Let candidates display their preferential numbers freely as before
Posted on July 7th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

Ay, his breast:
So says the bond: doth it not, noble judge?
‘Nearest his heart:’ those are the very words.
Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge,
To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, the vengeful usurer Shylock’s wicked attempt to settle an old score with honest Antonio who stood surety for a loan given to his friend and fellow merchant Bassanio is thwarted by Portia; Shylock demands a pound of flesh cut off from nearest the guarantor’s heart, as required in terms of a bond signed between him and the friends in case of the debtor failing to repay it by the due date. Portia, the rich lady love of Bassanio, contrives to hear the case herself, disguised as a learned doctor of laws. She skillfully demonstrates that the terms of the bond cannot be lawfully implemented if they are adhered to with literal strictness. In her epic judgement, she delivers justice to both Antonio and Shylock so that Antonio doesn’t have to die for his friend’s failure to repay the loan by the end of the agreed period; Shylock is spared capital punishment for trying to abuse the law to take revenge on Antonio, whom he hated. This sort of humane resolution of a conflict between the letter and the spirit of the law hasn’t happened in Sri Lanka recently. Ordinary Sri Lankans’ basic human rights have been  violated for nearly five long years courtesy the infamous ‘good governance’ anarchy and its lingering legacy. They are demanding justice. 

Anarchy is the antithesis of law and order, which is now being gradually but expeditiously restored where possible. This is the fulfilment of a basic need of government under the parliamentary system of democracy that we believe we still have. Under this system, the three main branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, are manned by humans (i.e., they operate through human agency). Men and women acting in these branches (MPs, President, and Judges, and various government functionaries including members of independent commissions) take moral as well as legal responsibility for their decisions which directly bear on the lives of all the citizens of the state including themselves. They can be relied upon to have a unique bond of cultural affinity in addition to natural human empathy with the general mass of the people, something we cannot and do not expect from foreigners. That is why we hate even a suggestion of imperialist foreign interference in our domestic affairs, particularly at the  governance level, that involves the aforementioned three organs of government. Under yahapalanaya, this reality appeared not to have been sufficiently recognized. Further, there was a crazy  disjointedness or lack of articulateness between the main branches of government, which ultimately made a mockery of democracy and national sovereignty. The essential law and order foundation of governance was undermined thereby.

With election campaigning hotting up, the Election Commission’s unprecedented decision to implement the 1981 parliamentary elections laws to the letter has run into controversy because it interferes with the accustomed way of electioneering by the candidates.  The 1981 election laws were in abeyance or were ignored for forty years since their enactment. There has been no complaint during that long period about any particular problems that had resulted from their  desuetude,. Were these normal times, various reasons could have been offered to justify it. The main reason would have to do with the much needed restoration of the deteriorated law and order situation in the country. 

But these are not normal times for the whole world, particularly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is more so for Sri Lanka, which is passing through the most critical phase of its political history since 1948, with what could be seen as occasional stirrings of an attempted return  of separatist terrorism in the north and the deadly arrival of jihadist terror, and the global superpower poking around with its own strategic geopolitical axe to grind in the form of the MCC agreement. Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to elect a parliament that is capable of working with president Gotabaya. The EC’s role in conducting the election process is an unenviable one, given the unprecedented complications that have come up.

The unacceptable conduct of one of the EC members,  Ratnajeevan Hoole, (as shown, for example, in his advice, as reported in the media, to members of his own Tamil community in his hometown Jaffna not to vote for the SLPP) has brought that body to disrepute; the utterances and body language of EC chairman Mahinda Deshapriya seems to betray unnecessary fears about elections having to be held before the country is declared safe from Covid-19. But the government is managing the Covid-19 situation admirably well and the EC chairman need not wrack his brain about it. He has also given hints of his being a believer in the fallacy of an alleged majoritarian tendency among the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community that is peddled by racist anti-nationalists, and implicitly expressed caution about it.

In view of such instances of possible lack of impartiality on their part,  the EC’s sudden decision to implement some absurd election laws that had remained in abeyance for almost forty years since their passage does not go down well with the public, particularly with the parliamentary candidates. The stringent restrictions imposed on the free display of their preferential numbers are very unfair. But such measures as the strict imposition of a complete ban on the abuse of state property for propaganda work by any party or individual candidate are very welcome. Yet, this is the worst time imaginable for enacting so far safely ignored, unfairly restrictive, impractical regulations relating to the holding of the polls. Why should the EC try to add to the difficulties caused by unavoidable constraints slapped on physical movements by health authorities in these dangerous pandemic hit times? At this particular juncture, for Sri Lanka, the holding of free and fair elections in which each and every adult citizen must feel obliged to use their franchise and cast their vote without let or hindrance for whichever party or alliance of their choice is of paramount importance.

This is because, the ordinary voters are set to elect the best possible parliament under the circumstances at this historic hour. It will definitely be a robust parliament filled with a majority of MPs with integrity and pluck who are worthy of probably the most inspired, work-oriented president the country has ever got. The already assured sweeping victory of the ruling SLPP and the impending utter rout of the opposition that is in complete disarray have rendered competitive campaigning somewhat lacklustre, and uninspiring and unexciting like a game of cricket or football between two widely unmatched teams.  Unless the electoral contest is sufficiently intense and exciting, the eventual voter turnout is likely to be affected; a possible low turnout could proportionately diminish the value of the final outcome. This is not good for the  faction that is set to win, but the losing side will like it for obvious reasons. A prominent government party politician has suggested that the EC’s determination to make the polling process relatively confusing and cumbersome  might be a ploy to ensure this result.

Elect good, honest, educated, and morally upright people as MPs” is not a new slogan. It has been heard at least over the past half a century without any indication of its being heeded by anybody. This is because the voters have no choice over the matter. Parties nominate their candidates subject to various considerations that have little to do with their moral characters. This time, it may be assumed that there is a difference. The education and the moral background of candidates must have been taken care of  by the nomination committees of the parties, at least to some extent. Under the existing electoral system, people vote for a particular party, unlike in the olden days, when widely known respectable individuals were elected to represent a constituency. Then it was the individual candidate, as much as the party, that was chosen. Today, for getting elected to parliament, a candidate must get enough preferential votes among a number of contending candidates put forward by each party for multi-seat constituencies; so naturally there is a form of undeclared war among candidates within each political party. Displaying their preferential number in a striking way for the voters to remember is of vital importance for every candidate across the whole range of parties, alliances, and groups. EC’s virtual obstruction of this essential and reasonable propaganda requirement, through its unfair insistence on following the law to the letter is going to be particularly disadvantageous for the two most important types of candidates: the new and the materially poor. Candidates who are poor cannot afford expensive media advertising; the little known new ones find it hard to make their numbers stand out among the numbers assigned to veterans whose already well known names and previous designations render them conspicuous and memorable. So the veteran candidates of every party will not object to the EC’s tough stand in this regard, for it will mean that they have already won at least 75% of the internecine war for preference votes. This situation is most prejudicial to the newer fresher competitors, and also contrary to the generally shared desire among the voters to elect a decent lot to the august body. (Both the UNP and the SLPP, please work out the implications of this, and use the opportunity to get rid of the old rogues who contributed to the yahapalana to the detriment of the nation out of pure selfishness.)

It is high time the EC eased this restriction immediately, before the thousands of candidates resort to some other innovative, but problematic way to circumvent the formidable obstacle placed on their path. Let’s not forget that there are more than one way to skin a cat. 

One Response to “Let candidates display their preferential numbers freely as before”

  1. aloy Says:

    There is no need to write ‘atuwa tika’. This EC has been put there by those who want to destroy SL. He has no problem in accepting nominations from any rogue who does not declare assets (take the case of Mahindananda) but has put blocks to others on various pretexts for the flimsiest reason. When they go to courts there appear to be no redress.

    The number game is another ruse to confuse the voters. An election conducted in this manner has no validity and the voters should reject such a poll to my mind.

    These people seem to be working to the agenda of either the ME mafia or the western block who are hell bent on taking over the country either by hook or by crook.

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