21 May, 2024

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Preparing For Free & Fair Elections

By Jehan Perera

ජෙහාන් පෙරේරා

Elections provide a unique situation where people become equal regardless of their class or ethnic and religious identity. This offers space to rival politicians to address their unmet needs. The government has commenced several development initiatives that will take resources to the community level in a targeted manner. These initiatives would be beneficial to the government in mustering support for it at the grassroots level. Those who wield governmental power have the ability to make tangible offerings to the people to secure their vote in a time of elections. The intervention of the Election Commission and civil society organisations in disapproving some of these governmental actions and ensuring free and fair elections needs to be seen in this light.

The executive director of People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), Rohana Hettiarachchi has noted that the government had launched a number of initiatives, aimed at the anticipated presidential election. These initiatives, including the distribution of rice to the poor, is costing billions in tax money, he added. “The government has allocated 10 million rupees for each local government area for development activities. The funds will be used at the discretion of the governor of the province. The governor is the direct representative of the President and it is obvious that this is an endeavour aimed at the election.” Hettiarachchi said earlier that the President has ordered officials to finish all government projects by 31 July.

Those in government have an advantage as they can take steps to meet the needs of voters in tangible form in the present itself. The election law is clear that once an election is announced members of the government cannot get directly involved in providing government resources to the people. The government’s development drive ahead of anticipated elections has been questioned by the Election Commission who has looked into a complaint lodged by PAFFREL about the impact of the involvement of politicians to carry out election propaganda in the guise of carrying out development work at divisional secretariats areas.

No Politicisation

The election law in Sri Lanka addresses the potential for indirect involvement of government members in providing resources during an election period. The law limits the ability of government officials to use state media, advertising, and public communications for partisan purposes during the election campaign. Election monitoring bodies and independent observers are tasked with oversight of how government resources are utilized during the election period. This includes tracking the use of state vehicles, equipment, staff, and other assets to prevent their misappropriation. These provisions demonstrate the efforts to uphold the integrity of the electoral process, even in the face of potential indirect influence attempts by those in power.

The test of the pudding is in the eating, it is said. The president’s office has recently issued a directive regarding the appointment of community advisory committees in each of the local council areas to which a sum of Rs 10 million is to be allocated. The members of these committees are to be empowered to decide on development activities in those areas that need to be prioritized. The problem is that last year local government elections were to be held in those very areas, but the elections were postponed. Some of the candidates for the local government elections will be in the advisory committees. Despite the postponement of the elections, their nominations remain valid which creates a conflict of interest.

The government resources to be distributed with the guidance of the advisory committees include significant state resources. The government has decided on a crash programme to distribute land deeds to over two million families and free rice distribution for two months to nearly three million families. Other projects include the distribution of houses in urban areas, the implementation of hill country development projects and agriculture modernisation projects. The Elections Commission is being true to its mandate in making its objections to the politicization of these major activities involving distribution of state resources.

High Stakes

The 21st Amendment established independent commissions to ensure that the imperatives of partisan politics do not prevail over considerations of justice and rule of law. It aimed to restore and strengthen the balance of power between the executive, legislature, and judiciary and to reduce the powers of the President and increase the independence of key institutions, including the Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, and the Human Rights Commission. These commissions were previously subject to political interference. The question is whether the government will give deference to the Election Commission’s observations with regard to the appointment of those who have been given nominations to contest the local government elections to decide on resource allocation.

The stakes are high for the government as it wishes to strengthen public support for itself in the run-up to the forthcoming elections. A year ago, the government ignored the Election Commission’s declaration of local government elections when they fell due. The government claimed that the economic crisis in the country did not make it possible for the government to release the money needed to conduct the elections. This controversy was taken to the Supreme Court which ruled that the funds already set aside in the government budget for elections should not be blocked and should be used for the purposes they were meant for. But the government did not hold those elections and continues to have them postponed in violation of the law.

The final power will be with the people. It will be up to them when they vote to decide whether they will give priority to gains in the short term or to following a system that is laid down in law that applies to all. From the time of the collapse of the economy in 2022 and the rise of the protest movement, the slogan of “system change” has fired the public imagination. Whether those fires will be doused by the grim realities of eking of a living, and getting whatever is possible in the present and short term will be determined at the election to come. Systems change is both a process and an outcome. Political actors need to focus on the process by which systems change can be brought about. The Election Commission is at the forefront of protecting democracy at the present time. It needs to be given public support to ensure free and fair elections.

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Latest comment

  • 3
    1

    … The final power will be with the people … ??
    This statement is as drab as the article itself.

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