By Austin Fernando –
When the media reported Minister of Wild Life Conservation Vijithamuni de Zoysa as stating “I also won the elections in 2001 by showing a toy pistol”, I was reminded of the past, not for his boast or the poor humor created by Eraj Fernando, Mayor of Hamabntota, on pistols; but, because it is an eternal experience, stemming from abuse of power, irrespective of political parties.
One may suspect whether the Minister’s statement is delayed evidence to confirm instigated terrorism by all political parties to win elections (e.g. Referendum 1982, shameful North-Western Province elections where a woman was chased on roads in the nude). Since ‘pistol games’ had been almost always initiated by governing parties did not it exhibit the manner in which those governments vandalized democratic rights of the people?
Alas, the Wildlife Minister confirms the wild animals’ attitude (i.e. Strength wins). Sometimes, his statement may be to summarily trivialize the recent Hambantota incident.
However, the danger lies in his saying that Fonsekas or Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will not be permitted to win, insinuating that a genuine or toy pistol game at the Uva Provincial Council elections could be anticipated. Is this a prediction of the manner in which the globally orchestrated statement “We saved democracy in the whole island” would be safeguarded in Uva? Is it also an invitation to the Opposition for a shooting dual?
When Minister Zoysa says that he won the 2001 election “by scaring,” I am reminded of an episode he may not be aware, where his party was allegedly defeated by being scared off with pistols. Though we have heard of similar incidents from DS Senanayaka era, they had been on roads, houses, meetings and not inside the Counting Halls. Of course, later they were upgraded to “Computer Jilmarts”!
I narrate here of an episode where the Elections Department won over such challenges. However, in a country where political, legal, social ethics, value systems, practices have deteriorated, it is questionable whether the present day public officers would have the moral courage of the officers of yester years.
Even adhered, they will be dissuaded by the nasty incident experienced at Matara by Aruna Saumya Fernando, Nuwara Eliya’s Assistant Commissioner of Elections. In a said land, will Jaycees, Rotary or any other organization appreciating managerial feats and honor Saumya as “Manager of the Year” for defending the Rule of Law? I doubt!
Threats at Ratnapura
Some time back an official allegation was made with the Commissioner of Elections of an incident in Ratnapura of threatening with firearms inside a Counting Hall. It was with real pistols. This allegation (true or false) was made by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) against the Sabaragamuwa Chief Minister Punchi Nilame of the United National Party (UNP).
Though this was a past incident, SLFP has convincingly represented matters and created a suspicion in the mind of the Commissioner of Elections Chandrananda De Silva that it could be repeated at the By- Election to be held to fill in the vacancy created by the appointment of Chief Minister Punchi Nilame. The threat of such an incident was perceived to be higher as the UNP candidate was Susantha Punchinilame, the son of Chief Minister Punchi Nilame. It was not surprising for the Commissioner, who knew well of the nasty actions of the UNP regime during the Referendum in 1982, to respond with full force.
Positive responses to the Commissioner
I received a request from the Commissioner to assist him. He was my close friend and the first Guru in Elections Administration in 1968. It is a tradition then and now to assist the Commissioner by the old hands of the Department.
The Government Agent (GA) and Returning Officer, Ratnapura was another friend— HADR Haturusinghe. As the Government was UNP, some suspected that the GA was giving extra-attention to the Government.
The By-Election was held on July 14th 1988. I went to Ratnapura early. The responses I received for my queries were implying that the Kachcheri floats with the existed political tides. But there were no allegations made against the Elections Office.
However, the ground situation had to be checked through a reliable confidante. I picked on an officer (Mr. Edirisinghe) who served me when I was Commissioner of Cooperatives and who was the Assistant Commissioner of Cooperatives in Ratnapura in 1988. To my evaluation he was not politically biased.
Suitability of the Counting Hall
In Ratnapura I first met the GA and with him inspected the Counting Hall. To my memory it had easily accessible, wide spaced openings. If I were to admit participants at the count after physically frisking I needed a hall restricting entry. Having planned in my mind the strategy to handle this issue, through the GA, I engaged the relevant persons to make physical adjustments to the hall.
Without giving advanced notice on frisking, casually I requested the GA to attach a few Police Officers at the entry point of the Counting Hall. At the counting rehearsal no mention was made on frisking.
I wanted an officer with high tone, with a daring personality, who would not annoy the politicians of various colors who would attend the counting of votes, also with capacity to take firm action when required. My pick was an Assistant Commissioner of Elections who was known to me earlier, who is the incumbent Commissioner of Elections, Mahinda Deshapriya.
However, our problem was not too easy because of the capacity of both groups to out beat each other in indulging in violent action.
I obtained the list of appointed counting officers from the GA before I met with Edirisinghe. While having lunch I discussed on various issues regarding the count and the Kachcheri, political authorities etc. Specifically I gathered information on political affiliations of officers in the counting officers list.
After lunch I showed the counting officers list to Edirisinghe. Honestly and without bias I noted the officers who are politically slavish and the political parties to which they were affiliated.
Thereafter, I rearranged the list of names of counting officers. Based on the information I received, the list was rearranged with four names of politically uncommitted, followed by a politically biased officer and I got the Elections Office to type the revised / rearranged list of names of counting officers.
I decided to roster names according to the list and the names in 5, 10, 15 etc. identified as troublesome to be retired to the waiting room, leaving behind the others in the Counting Hall. I met the officers in the waiting room and told them that they would be called in as substitutes when required. However, not a single “dwarf politician” was called upon until the count was completed!
At the evening rehearsal the day before the count only the counting process was explained and the security arrangements were not discussed.
Hurt Anura Bandaranaike!
I requested Mahinda to compulsorily attend the counting hall by 6 p.m. and he along with several Assistant Returning Officers, clerks etc. were present as expected. I instructed Mahinda to frisk and check all persons attending the count inclusive of political representatives / agents. In case of any resistance, I advised him to permit anyone to speak to me, but, emphasized that they should act in a manner not to permit such representations to me!
While Mahinda was satisfactorily carrying out his task I heard a commotion from the entry point. A voice was thundering “Who asked us to be frisked? We are not ruffians. We are Members of Parliament.” I heard Mahinda’s high pitched voice overpowering the earlier voice “I have been ordered by the Officer in charge of the Count. If you wish please speak to him”. With “Yes, I will look after it. This is a hell of a thing!” the commotion was over. As I heard the voice I identified who was hurt. My ears were used to the thundering voice.
Again the heavy voice erupted “Who is the Counting Officer?” Anura Bandaranaike who was known to me from my days as the GA Nuwara Eliya was frothing wild. “Sir, it was the SLFP that complained that Punchi Nilame has brought fire arms in to the Counting Centre at the last election. If that is not to be repeated, everyone attending the count has to be frisked. In this exercise we cannot discriminate on personalities. Please understand us.” He said “Hmm, alright” and left me with a dry smile, quite displeased. .
Frisking was done on Punchi Nilames, other candidates and Counting Agents. The Walkie-Talkies” belonging to the security personnel of Messers Anura Bandaranaike and Punchi Nilame were taken over by Mahinda. The issue raised by them was the reason for taking over the instruments. When Mahinda explained of the need to maintain secrecy within the counting premises arguing has ceased. It was fortunate that technology was less developed than now at that time!
More importantly there were gentlemen parliamentarians like Anura Bandaranaike who were endowed with decencies and capacity to understand other’s viewpoint, when issues were explained. When the way of speech, behavior and actions of some present day politicians are considered, I doubt whether we would meet Anura Bandaranaikes again. I consider myself fortunate to have met persons like Madam Sirima Bandaranaike, Colvin R De Silva, and Pieter Keuneman etc. during election duties. They had great respect for the election laws and were abiding to the letter. Today’s public officers are unfortunate in that respect.
I think in today’s terms an officer carrying out the then duties carried out by Mahinda would not have received responses in words, but treatment on the ear drum by a security officer or candidate or with a threat of such happening from a political henchman.
Punchi Nilames and Fernandos!
The Counting Hall is the stage on which the final act of high drama is acted after crude political operations at the field level for months. These acts differ from the behavior at the field level. Usually the Opposition candidates and agents watch the behavior of the Chief Counting Officer, and even others. Their hawk-eyed attention meets with all actions of counting officers.
Because of such hawk-eyed observation he experienced at the Kamburupitiya By-Election, Senior Minister DEW Gunasekara who was a counting agent then has become a friend of mine for decades. Minister Dharmasiri Senanayaka became a good friend after he experienced my vehement refusal at the attempt to take Don Thomas Fransisku (Raluve Ralahamy) in to Police custody by a Superintendent of Police at the Mulkirigala By-Election counting hall (main candidates being my school day friend Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and amiable Ananda Kularatna), allegedly on the orders of the then Defense Secretary.
In such background I share an incident that happened in Ratnapura as it has a tinge of humor.
Punchi Nilames- father and son, and Nanda Ellawala were friendly with us inside the Counting Hall. Nanda Ellawala addressed me as “Mr. Fernando”. Susantha Punchi Nilame addressed me as “Uncle” as done even today. After some time I observed the reduction of friendly behavior in Nanda Ellawala, along with his decreasing friendly smile. When the counting was supervised I thought he was definitely winning and expected him to have a full bloomed broad smile!
I called him to my table and asked him: “Mr. Ellawala, I observe that the way you looked at me when you arrived here has changed by now. Did anything go wrong from our end?” With a camouflaging smile he said “No, nothing”. I told him “Tell me the truth. Either you or one of your friends would have thought that I would favor Susantha having seen him calling me “Uncle.” I told him “He calls me “Uncle” because we live in the same Summit Flat block”. When I added “Otherwise how can Nilames be related to Fernandos?” he had a hearty laugh and returned to normal behavior!
Release of Election results
By early morning the results were ready. Nanda Ellawala had polled 31, 854 and Susantha Punchi Nilame 27, 069, while all other candidates had polled a meager total of 748 votes. Inside the Counting Hall I announced the tentative results and inquired whether they had any objections and since they had none, I prepared myself to officially announce the result, when Anura Bandaranaike’s heavy voice thundered again.
“Comrades, today we won a great victory. Throughout the election campaign we were harassed by the Kachcheri, Police and others. Our supporters were taken to custody. When we arrived here in to this hall about seven in the evening yesterday we expected similar unreasonable wrong processes would be repeated and therefore, we were determined to act against. But, when the count commenced we learnt that we possess a public service that is reasonable, law abiding and with integrity. We are proud of all of you. Especially, we thank the officer in charge of the count and all officers. We respect the Department of Elections.”
Anura Bandaranaike personally thanked me and my team before Nanda Ellawala. Before he left he thanked me several times more. Nanda Ellawala took leave from me cracking a joke “You very well proved that you are not a relation of Punchi Nilames!”
One must not lose sight that violence during elections is mostly possible when a party is in power. This is why some in the Opposition who sinned previously speak of saintly electioneering now. If those who throw their arms now believe that they would be out of power one day, they must expect violence against them at such time, and must be prepared to grumble, if they continue to do what they boast of now.
Not to have election violence at all is the best, though the prevailing election systems do not support such outcome.
It must be lastly told that rather than to win elections with pistols there is space for gentlemanly ways to win and if public officers and politicians strive, it will not be difficult to achieve that end. Then only we can loudly proclaim that we had saved democracy like our lives and not by ridiculing democratic processes with crude words.
The Mahinda Deshapriya who shouldered responsibility will be a historical personality if he exhibited in the future the same prowess, courage, respect to law and strategizing as exhibited that day in Ratnapura; if he does not permit brandishing pistols; and, if the boast of Minister Zoysa ridiculing the election process is not repeated by another Minister. How great?