With the country gearing up to finally hold the local government election which was postponed over changes to the electoral system, the Elections Commission says that a programme would have to be put in place at polling stations that will enable the smooth counting of votes within a stipulated period of time.
It follows on-going legal disputes over certain local authorities and technical glitches in the relevant laws.
However, employees and staff affiliated to the Elections Commission who wished to remain anonymous along with polls monitors say that neither the people of the country, the government or public servants involved in election related activities knew under what electoral system the election would be held.
The proportional representation (PR) system including the preferential voting system or a new system which is composed of the PR system (30%) and the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system (70%) are currently being looked into as options.
The five-member Local Government Institutions Delimitation Appeals Committee on the Demarcation of Boundaries chaired by Ashoka Peiris is presently scheduled to hand over their report to the relevant authority, Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Faiszer Musthapha before mid January.
The report is said to comprise three volumes on delimitation, demarcation and mapping of each ward. Surveyor General, P.M.P. Udayakantha is to hand over the amended maps pertaining to Local Government divisions and areas with limits which had initially been separated and allocated. It will be marked in accordance with the Provinces and Divisions to the Committee.
Elections monitors, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) led by its Executive Director, Rohana Hettiarachchi and the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) led by its Executive Director, Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon have criticized the lethargic conduct of Peiris and Musthapha for the resultant delays in the process which have resulted in the constitutionally guaranteed democratic right of suffrage being denied to the people.
Member of the Committee, Attorney-at-Law A. Sathar M. Misbah pointed out that the Committee had given an opportunity to political parties and the public and had subsequently looked at all observations, presentations, suggestions and requests and incorporated most of them while noting that “what cannot be done cannot be done”.
While the Committee’s report is almost finalized and ready, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had informed the Committee that the political parties and their leaders should be notified of the findings of the Committee in the report.
Thus, the Committee is presently awaiting a time to be provided for it by Wickremesinghe. “We don’t need to hand over the report to Wickremasinghe. Technically, it is to Musthapha that we must submit it. Yet, since Musthapha is in Wickremasinghe’s Cabinet, he (Wickremasinghe) too is liable and responsible with regard to the report and its contents,” Misbah said.
The terms of local government bodies have long since ended. Elections in Pudukuduirippu and Muhudubadapattu (Maritime Pattu) may not be held owing to protracted legal battles in the Supreme Court. The Secretariat however said that there were talks underway with regard to holding the elections of the latter two Pradeshiya Sabhas under the soon-to-be-formed electoral system subsequent to the enactment of an Act of Parliament in this regard. This could be the first election under a new electoral system which is a mixture of PR and FPTP. The preferential voting system is to be abolished.
Meanwhile, Media Secretary to the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, Amila Balasuriya, confirmed that the Ministry would gazette the contents of the said report upon receiving it and the Ministry would also gazette the number of local authority members and separately gazette the rectification of technical issues such as the inclusion of names of villages and terms which had since been changed.
The relevant Acts include the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2012, the Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Act, No. 21 of 2012 and Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 1 of 2016. The last one deals with increased female representation.
Balasuriya pointed out that subsequent to this the involvement of the Ministry ceases as the holding of the election is the sole responsibility of the independent, three-member Elections Commission.
The Commission however has identified over 60 problems and problematic shortcomings in the relevant Act, the latest Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act. If amendments are not brought to resolve the said problems in the Act prior to holding the election, there could be further complications.
Parliament will have to pass an Act approving the amendments. Lawfully, the Government cannot conduct the election under the former PR system as the new system is now recognized by law.
To undo this, the Government would have to pass a law by enacting it in Parliament. In this regard, nothing is clear yet.
However, Secretary of the Ministry, HT Kamal Pathmasiri said that the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2012 had adopted the mixture of PR and FPTP as the new electoral system and therefore what was to be implemented in 2017 was not a new system even though it is to be implemented in reality for the first time.
He added that this was a question of Governmental policy as decided by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.
Following the Ministry’s work with the gazettes being completed, the Elections Commission chaired by Mahinda Deshapriya will then issue a notice of the date of nominations, upon the gazetting of which a time frame begins.
This time around, there are three separate nomination sheets with the names of candidates that have to be submitted with one for the PR list, another for the FPTP list and a third for female representation.
According to Additional Commissioner of the Legal and Investigation Branch of the Elections Secretariat, M.M. Mohamed, by mid-day on the 17th day following the issuing of the said gazette, the Commission must as soon as possible issue the gazette giving notice of the poll.
A gazette should contain the information of the date of the election. The need will be for a date during a period no less than five weeks and no more than seven weeks, when the election will be held and not who will be contesting.
Mohamed said currently in the discussion stage are legal reforms proposed by political parties including campaign finance reforms, amendments in relation to the declaration of assets and liabilities, and the provision of the universal franchise to those in essential services such as doctors, nurses, those whose work involves the expressways, ports and airports who are presently not able to cast their ballot, to do so via postal vote or in person in the area where their names are in the electoral registry.
“The public service is efficient and experienced. There is a system in place. Even though there will be a difference in relation to counting the polls, the Secretariat officials who previously handled more grave situations when counting a single vote four times when the preferential voting system was in place, should not find the change at all difficult to adapt to,” Mohamed emphasized.
Meanwhile, on the political front, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) extended an invitation to its Members of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (People’s Front) to join them to contest the polls under the United People’s Freedom Alliance.
Elsewhere, elections monitoring bodies also noted that the Commission would require a minimum of three months for preparation as it was not easy owing to the doubling of the number of elected candidates which will swell from its present number of approximately 3,600 members to over 7,500.
Polls monitor, the CMEV observed that certain Pradeshiya Sabhas were unable to accommodate even the existing members and provide for them. Regarding the question of the infrastructure needed and the facilities required for it, Pathmasiri explained that even though as per the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the matter came under the purview of the Provincial Councils and local authorities.
If any Local Government institution is unable to provide such, they could address the situation by way of a request to the Ministry.
“We have yet to receive a request in this regard,” he said.
National Coordinator of the CMEV, Manjula Gajanayake said that since the process of counting the ballots would take place at the polling stations, preparations would have to be made for security and technical arrangements to be put in place.
“Previously, all elections were held under the Elections Commissioner. He could take arbitrary decisions on matters such as the provision of access to disabled voters. Now, there is a Commission with three members including the Elections Commissioner and all three will have to be consulted. We can now see how well the Commissioners including the Chairman of the Commission work together. This will be a testing period for them too and therefore the election will be a challenge to the Commission and the Secretariat,” he explained.
According to the Delimitation Committee, under the new system, the representation garnered by the minorities and minority parties will be less than before. The Committee has also noted that there was no probability of allocating an increased number of representatives to Local Government bodies where the population was more. The Committee highlighted these as being among the other issues that the new system could not and would not resolve.
Meanwhile Tennakoon called on political parties and civil society organizations to defeat the corrupt actions of Governmental political parties to hold the polls under the proportional representation system.
While adding that the Joint Opposition (JO) was the only party pushing for the Local Government election, they (JO) demanded that President Maithripala Sirisena and the Commission hold the elections immediately under the established binding law (the ward system, 70% FPTP and 30% PR).
Leader of the JO, MP Dinesh Gunawardena said that the Committee amounts to a historic event of incompetence on the part of public officials, adding that the Committee had been kicked about like a football from postponement to postponement.
“The Committee’s report has been finally translated and virtually completed. It was to be handed over on December 27, but Musthapha left the country knowing this”,
Gunawardena charged while adding that Sirisena had last week discussed with all political parties the gazetting of the report by the end of the month.
“During the first 100 to 150 days of the 100 day programme of the then Government, Minister of Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Karu Jayasuriya completed hearing appeals in this regard and gave time for it along with the recommendations. This was submitted to Sirisena who gazetted all the Local Government authorities under the ward system on August 21, 2015. The new Government under Wickremasinghe appointed Musthapha and again appointed a Committee to deliberate over delimitation in one and a half years”, said Gunawardena.
“According to Gunawardena, the Committee had not made a recommendation that all wards should be changed. He further added that the Committee had made recommendations only in relation to less than half of the wards. The ward system and the PR mix have remained intact since the original recommendations made by Jayasuriya.
“As per the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the process should be handed over to the Commission as the matter is part of their role and responsibility. We don’t see the Commission being powerful. Tax payers’ rights are being abused by a few officials.
Without the approval of the Council (composed of elected representatives) as noted in the relevant laws, they cannot take a single decision regarding finances. This is totally against the law. They can be subjected to legal charges. People should elect whoever they want. We are confident that we will emerge victorious,” said Gunawardena.