At the last meeting of the Election Commission on 18.06.2018 some ethics issues came up. An MP had complained that I had been untruthful about him in one of my articles – whereas I had referred to my personal observation in June 2011 of his cadres and the army forcing the public at the Jaffna bus-stand to sign a statement that there had been no casualties at Mullivaikal. This was immediately after the UN Secretary General’s Panel gave 40,000 as the casualty figure there. We came to the realization that we have no code of ethics although we have promulgated codes for political parties and candidates.
Another issue concerned my referring to Thambyrajah Gurukularajah of ITAK as a friend. It was suggested that I had compromised the integrity of the Commission. Gurukularajah is my childhood friend not a political friend. I have lived in his house in Paranthan. We are from the same school and church parish. Our fathers were Anglican priests (his in the CSI, the Anglicans in South India).
We all have political friends. Keeping quiet about them does not change that and does not mean we have no politician friends. In fact, my open declaration of our friendship prevents me from participation in Commission decisions concerning Gurukularajah, whereas non-declaration would allow me secretively to take his side. What I did is known and expected in ethics as full-disclosure.
More importantly, however, the Commission’s function is to uphold election laws. It is agreed that when no one cheats it is wrong to say anything negative or positive about a party or politician; whereas when there is rampant cheating, there is no way in which our laws can be upheld without pointing fingers. Yet another function of the Commission is voter education – voters have the right to know when politicians openly flout the laws of the land. Commission neutrality must not be an excuse to hide from the voters the misdeeds of our politicians, thereby shielding them from the punishments the law prescribes.
Friday to Saturday (22-26 June) engaged the Commission in celebrating Voters’ Day (01.06.2018) in Muslim areas because of Ramzan. At the grand meeting at Sainthamaruthu Grand Mosque, Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya in the spirit of pointing fingers at those that cheat, referred to the Commission’s determination that the ongoing postponement of elections to Provincial Councils is a violation of our franchise and therefore of our sovereignty. The country belongs to us the people and not our rulers, he said.
We had decided on 18.06.2018 that after speaking to party representatives on the 26th, we would refer to the Supreme Court for direction in the face of government recalcitrance in avoiding PC elections just like the LG elections were dragged on through delimitation and legislative changes.
Minister Faiszer Muthapha who as recently as on 25.04.2018 said on Ada Derana that “Elections for 6 Provincial Councils are mandatory this year,” has declared on 16.06.2018 (Daily Mirror) that elections to six provincial councils are not likely this year because “the political parties are apprehensive of the outcome following the experience gained at the February local government poll.” What was mandatory is no longer mandatory? The only problem was that many old men had to give way to young women with new ideas. The only basis for such postponement is to deny us our franchise. At the same time, Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne (Hiru News, 20.06.2018) has told us that elections will be held in December under the old proportional representation. This is incredible for two reasons. First, December is the month of national exams when holding elections is very difficult. Second, to hold elections under the PR system after the laws have been changed to a mixed system, needs new legislation.
I have pointed out to huge flaws in the legislation where the Commission has a quorum of three on a membership of three. The law does not say if the Chairman is an executive or primus inter pares. I have been assigned a Rs. 50,000 travel allowance by parliament which is finished in two and a half trips by car to Colombo (with nothing for hotel accommodation). In reality, this means I cannot attend all meetings. Assistant Commissioners get cars from our large fleet for official travel but not Members because the auditor says we have a travel allowance. Naturally, we are back to square one where decisions are taken without the quorum. The Chairman tries to accommodate me by asking junior officers to attend meetings that they need not attend so that I get a free ride in their cars. They resent disturbance to their work to baby-sit me. The President has ordered that I be allocated quarters but the people allocating housing say that I am far behind in the queue; although some Assistant Commissioners get quarters in Colombo. The Constitutional Council is exercising powers like giving us leave when such powers are not on record anywhere. The government is unable to make the simple, required legislative changes. Even the new laws the government passes refer to the Chairman as Election Commissioner. The Government website refers to him as Head of the Commission whereas a Head is not quite the same as Chairman. The law removed the Commissioner but allowed the old designations like Additional Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner to stand with cars for personal use and a higher salary than Members. People naturally ask, “If someone is Additional Commissioner, then where is the Commissioner?” So for all practical purposes, however hard the Chairman tries, people refer to him as Commissioner and even parliamentary committees ask him to take decisions that are the Commission’s. Is it any wonder that I am asked if I am sure I am on the Election Commission, whether I am the member in charge of Jaffna, etc. We members are simply commission flatulence.
When the government cannot make urgent changes to make the 19th amendment work as it should at least with respect to the Election Commission where decisions previously taken by the Commissioner are now meant to be taken by the Commission, what chance is there that it can change quickly the legislation with respect to the Provincial Council Elections as Rajitha Senaratne has suggested? None!
It is a given among election administrators as declared by the Commonwealth’s “good practices” to which we subscribe, that we should be wary of attempts to change the rules when elections are due. This seems to be such a moment. One does not change rules half-way through a game except to gain an advantage. Indeed, the rules need to be clear well before the game begins. Any party preparing for elections must have candidates, campaign machinery and financing ready. If elections are to be under the new PC law, they must have women ready; but not if they are to be under the old law. When only the government knows the rules, it has a clear advantage. Besides, reversion to the old system is an unacceptable roll back of all the gains we made for women on 10 February.
The police whom I suspect have taken money to play down election law violations, seem to be helping to push back on women’s gains. In Akkaraipattu there is a dispute over Muslims buying land in a Tamil area that led to violence. Two Tamil women elected on 10 February are Sanuja (SLFP) and Vijeyarani (UNP). While many Representatives went to see how they could help in the dispute, a party of all-male policemen went only to the homes of these two women at 1:30 am on 21.06.2018 to arrest them. This, despite their party connexions in government. They are presently out on bail, having been charged with fomenting communal discord. The two think it is the police’s way of discouraging women and thinking they can get information on the crimes easily from women through intimidation. Sanuja’s husband is upset she entered politics. Vijeyarani despairs that a marriage may be difficult to arrange for her because of her seeming criminal record. Will women come forward to contest next time?
This brings me to my own speech at Kalmunai and again at South Eastern University. I referred to the Chairman of the local authority in Musali (a backward area near Mannar) telling a woman member of his authority not to speak in the chamber because women are physically weak and likewise their mental ideas are also weak. This is totally unacceptable in a country where women have earned high professional status and have demonstrated mental capacities far stronger than the Musali Chairman’s. Is there a plan deliberately to roll back the gains that women made on 10 Feb. because men want it all?
I have a whole list of written election complaints against powerful politicians enjoying impunity while women are arrested – “treating” under the Sasundodaya Programme by offering Rs. 500 million for Buddhist temples in the North and East, for holding an election meeting at a temple, for spreading religious hatred by saying Tamils should not vote for Christians and that only Saivites who speak Tamil are Tamils while the rest are Tamil-speakers, for threatening a public officer and preventing him from doing his duty, etc.
Do these criminal politicians earn the right not to be accused because that would make the Commission less neutral? Indeed, our silence would betoken partiality. It is time for a code of ethics so that we may be guided on what the law allows and what it does not.