By Vivekananthan Niranjan –
The Managers’ Forum was privileged to have Mahinda Deshapriya, Chairman of the new Election Commission, as keynote speaker on 6 February, 2016 at Euroville Conference Hall in Muthiraichanthai, in Changili Thoppu, Nallur. His topic was “Elections: the Changes and Challenges.” In attendance was a large crowd of 75 or so dignitaries and other leading citizens.
Mr. Deshapriya arrived promptly on time and noted how he was pleased to see among those timely participants women and the two budding young lawyers, Mr. Janahan Muththukumar (who practises in Jaffna after qualifying as a Barrister in the UK and earning an LLM degree in Australia), and Miss. Mathumai Paranthaman educated at University of Wolverhampton. Mr. Deshapriya said he would be happy to just lecture to these young people who are the future of our country!
Prof. S. Ratnajeevan h. Hoole of the Election Commission, while chairing the meeting, announced that the Commission has taken the decision to go all over the country giving citizens the opportunity to participate in similar discussions and had chosen Jaffna as the first place to visit.
Mr. Muththukumar gave the welcome address which was short, sweet and to the point. He noted the importance given to Jaffna, first in choosing Jaffna for the first of the Commission’s countrywide series of talks, and second in the Constitutional Council appointing Prof. Hoole from Jaffna for an independent commission rather than choosing someone from Colombo as is all too common for such national appointments.
Thereafter Mr. Deshapriya began his speech. He elaborated on the changes and challenges in the offing. He took on the casual, jovial tone that is his style that made for a very interesting afternoon. Speaking in English, he wanted key phrases translated into Tamil. For this, the fluently trilingual Additional Commissioner (Legal and Investigations), Mr. M.M. Mohamed, stood by, ever ready, and did his job when called upon to repeat something in Tamil. This emphasized the inclusivity of the Commission where all minutes and important memoranda are prepared in all three languages.
While Mr. Deshapriya’s hour-long talk cannot be summarized in this brief write-up, only some notable features are mentioned here. There is a need to register voters, Mr. Deshapriya emphasized, and said that the urgency for doing that is captured by the Commission’s slogan “You do not register, you cannot vote.” Borrowing from the Indian Election Commission with permission, “No voter left behind” will be the Commission’s slogan at the next elections. He recalled his street campaigns to get voter registration up and pointed to Mr. S. Achchudhan (Deputy Commissioner for Colombo) who was deeply involved in that campaign and present in Jaffna.
In the latest estimates of the Commission, Jaffna District’s seats which have already dropped to 7, will drop yet again to 6 unless the re-settled persons are registered quickly. The Commission is giving this due attention. He mentioned that registering remand prisoners, and the disabled is another way of increasing registration.
After registration, comes the next huge challenge of getting the voters to vote. This means convincing them that their vote makes a difference and that those who get elected are truly their representatives and not criminals and assorted crooks. Interestingly he also said that the election process itself disfranchises election officials and the police helping the officials from voting. This is because they are only allowed to vote where they live and not where they are conducting elections.
A legal division of the Commission is being formed to advise the Commission on the plethora of laws to be contended with and amendmentss to be suggested to Parliament, and to address the numerous legal challenges coming up.
Mr. Deshapriya pointed out that the wealth of election management experience is usefully pooled through collaboration within the region and internationally. Direct links exist for such pooling with Election Management Bodies like India’s Election Commission, regional bodies like the Federation of Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA, of which Sri Lanka is the present Chairman), and independent nonprofits like the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, IFES, which is often the implementing partner for USAID aid to Sri Lanka in election-related projects.
The talk was followed by a lively discussion. Former Chief Minister Varatharaja Perumal asked why, despite low-caste numbers going up, we do not see low-caste representation among representatives. The TNA’s Mr. C.V.K. Sivagnanam said there are no serious problems and the EPDP’s Chandrakanthan said problems should be solved internally. Prof. Hoole disagreed and alleged “a sinister” plot to deny lower castes their seats through gerrymandered delimitation. He argued for special seat allocations for the lower castes like those being considered for women.
Someone asked about postal voting. Mr. Deshapriya believed that the only way around this is to give election officials and the police assisting them the ballot to be exercised in the normal way in front of officials at a special election station (close to where they are on duty, rather than where they live according to present law). This he would support but not a postal ballot. Hoole asked what assurance there is, when workers in the Middle East surrender their passports to their employers and recruitment agents, that their ballot papers also will not be taken over. Mr. Deshapriya agreed that was the problems and pointed out that even our ambassadors cannot vote because they live away from home. He added that even if workers are given the right to vote at the embassy, most employers will not give time-off for their employees to travel miles to the embassy.
Discussions on mixing First-Past-the-Post with Proportional Representation and increasing women’s representation naturally followed. Asked whether those defeated in the polls should be nominated as National List MPs, without answering directly, Mr. Deshapriya cited the example of Mr. Appapillai Amirthalingam being defeated in the Eastern Province and then nominated as MP. Mr. Deshapriya’s wealth of experience in working with the now defunct Elections Department and finger-tip information on things like Amirthalingam’s nomination are what made the discussions so useful to everyone.
The vote of thanks was delivered on behalf of the forum by Mr. Sivagnanam, Leader of the House at the Northern Provincial Council.
The Managers’ Forum is a registered, Jaffna-based, independent think-tank of over 1000 managers, professionals and academics. The Forum has conducted over 184 seminars on various topics of public interest since the year 2007. Vivekananthan Niranjan is presently the Forum’s Convener.