A free and fair election is what every citizen expects. However, loopholes in the prevailing election laws have prevented a fair election being held in the country. Even the Commissioner of Elections, Mahinda Deshapriya in several occasions expressed the present laws should be amended or revised if the country is to have free and fair elections, especially with relation to misappropriation of State property, the entertainment of voters with mass feeds and the putting up of scurrilous posters. The law governing general elections is laid down in Parliament Elections Act (No. 1 of 1981).
The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) has been reported with a total of 933 incidents of election law violations, 869 incidents were reported to People’s Actions For Free and Fair Elections (PAFFERAL). The Department of Elections has received a total number of 951 cases of election law violation cases. The Police have arrested 92 people from the complaints received and another 358 people were arrested for election law violations.
It is a fundamental principle that it is illegal to use public resources for partisan ends. Resources such as government buildings, telecommunication facilities are owned by people and they belong to the people and therefore considered public resources. The Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) which mainly focuses on cases related to misuse of state property has received a total of 218 up to date.
Despite the warnings of the Commissioner of Elections to the public servants not to use state resources for campaigning several incidents have taken place since the announcement of the general election. The highest number of incidents reported is related to abuse of state power, resources and misusing state sector employees to The Department of Election, TISL, CaFFE and PAFFERAL. The Commissioner however has already taken action to halt the transfer of government officials like Police officers.
Elaborating further PAFFERAL Executive Director, Rohana Hettiarachchi said, “In earlier elections, abuse of State resources were, mainly done by the ruling party. But this time ruling party as well as the opposition party has abused state property in the election campaigns. The numbers are very close.”
According to PAFFERAL, Sabaragamuwa Province, Chief Minister Mahipala Herath has given vehicles to each and every provincial member and later those used for election propaganda. “We made a complaint and wrote to the chief secretary, elections commissioner, deputy commissioner regarding the issue. Only on Wednesday (5) the vehicles were handed over to the additional commissioners in the said districts,” he added.
TISL Director Shan Wijethunga was also of the view that they too have observed a decrease in major election law violations compared to the presidential election held in January.
Parliament Elections Act (No. 1 of 1981)
Candidate not to visit residences for canvassing
(1) Any candidate or a member of the family of a candidate, who, at any time during the period commencing on the last day of the nomination period and ending on the day immediately following the day of the poll, visits the residence of any elector for the purpose of
(a) Soliciting or canvassing the vote of such elector, or
(b) Persuading such elector not to vote for a particular recognized political party or independent group, or
(c) Persuading such elector not to vote at such election, or
(d) Distributing or exhibiting any handbill, placard, poster, drawing, notice, photograph of a candidate, symbol or sign,
(2) For the purposes of this section, “member of the family” means the spouse, son, daughter or parent, of a candidate, or the spouse of the son or daughter of a candidate.
However, it should be noted that the people who contest for the upcoming election have totally neglected election laws, and have started to campaign using exactly the same means which they have been expressly prohibited from doing.
According to the Election law, no candidate can have posters, cut-outs, giant hoardings with party symbols, candidates’ numbers, names and photographs displayed at public places. Candidates are not allowed to display party symbols, their numbers, names and photographs on vehicles other than on personal vehicles in which the candidate travels. They are also not allowed to paste posters, fix cut-outs, and paint party symbols and candidates’ numbers along roads. All unauthorized election offices will be removed and only offices for which applications have been tendered according to the election law by group leaders will be permitted to operate.
However, there are no laws enacted to prevent political campaigns done through social media. “By the time the laws were introduced the social media was not there and therefore such situations cannot be covered by the prevailing election laws,” said PAFFERAL Executive Director, Rohana Hettiarachchi.
TISL Director Shan Wijethunga mentioned that he does not believe that the prevailing laws are adequate to prevent election law violation; however he said that with the 19th Amendment a lot of issues were solved by giving more powers to the Commissioner of Elections to take actions without delay.
“Although the existing laws are not sufficient to prevent almost all the violation case reported with the introduction of the 19th amendment a lot of positive change has taken place granting more powers to the Commissioner,” said Wijethunga.
Although there had been election law violations, almost all the cases were reported to the election monitors and to the department of election as well. The CaFFE Executive Director, Keerthi Tennakoon expressing his opinion said that the Commissioner of Elections has taken prompt actions whenever a complaint was made to the department and the commissioner has not only given directives but also has made sure that the law is enforced irrespective of to which party the wrongdoer belonged to.
“Compared to last elections, this election is quite peaceful. No major organized way of election law violations have taken place. Whenever monitors made complaints to the Commissioner, he took actions. Inquiries were done and necessary actions were taken and we are very happy about the way things have changed,” he added.
PAFFERAL Executive Director, Rohana Hettiarachchi also mentioned that noticeable reduction of election law violation is a collective effort of Commissioner, the IGP and the government.
“The government has not tried to interfere in any of the proceedings, and they have let the Police to carry out their duty independently,” said Hettiarachchi.
TISL Director Shan Wijethunga also pointed out that they are quite satisfied with the way the Commissioner and his staff has acted to ensure a free and fair election. “They have been keen and is quick to take action whenever a complaint was made,” he added.