By Manel Fonseka –
The current bad weather, with its displacement of many unfortunate people, can have serious implications for a free and fair poll. Polls staff, polling observers and voters in affected districts will have a tough time getting to the polling stations, and many of the displaced voters, even if they receive their polling cards will probably be in no state or mood to venture out to cast their vote. Understandably they will have other priorities in these difficult days.
In previous elections there is evidence that a low poll lent itself to rigging — predominantly by the government – with impersonation, stuffing of ballot boxes, possible rigging of the count, difficulties in following the ballot boxes, etc. Moreover, during the actual campaign, it is likely that those with greater (government) access to transport will be less hindered in getting around the country to address the voters directly in meetings – helicopters being largely carriers of presidents.
My study of the 1982 Referendum — ‘Sri Lanka’s First Referendum: Its Conduct and Results’, 1983 – had a section on the weather and its possible affect on the results in some areas, with apparent swings to the government in a matter of only two months, from October, in a number of electorates.
One reason President Jayewardene decided to have a referendum instead of holding the due general election was because he was shocked by the unexpected decline in his popularity as demonstrated by the results of the October 1982 Presidential election, despite an apparently weak candidate being fielded by the Opposition. He had expected to do so much better, believing himself to be far more popular than many of his MPs (whom he anticipated losing their seats at a general election, and he, thereby, his 2/3 majority). When the results were carefully studied, he grew even more worried about holding a parliamentary election – fearing his party might even lose it altogether. A referendum could more easily be won, as it only depended upon an overall simple majority. He could thereby retain the same number of Government MPs, and his 2/3 majority. His obtaining signed letters of resignation from all his MPs, also gave him the power to change them at will. My own study of the Referendum results showed a surprising swing to the government in many electorates which had either returned a negative vote for the President or at least a reduced one, only 2 months earlier. It also showed in many places a bigger share of the vote for the Lamp (the symbol for agreeing to the extension of Parliament for 6 years) on a reduced poll. The Weather was surely a factor in some areas, and I quote from my Referendum Report:
‘In some parts of the country, adverse weather conditions before and on referendum day itself, were a further complication, which had political consequences, both in the way that such conditions seem to have been utilised to the advantage of “yes” (Lamp) voters, and in testing the validity of the voting figures in certain electorates where this factor was operative.
‘During December, several parts of the country suffered severe flooding, particularly the east coast. Bridges, culverts and roads were washed away or made impassable, houses were destroyed and many villages went under water. Thousands were rendered homeless. Over 25,000 people in Batticaloa were affected; in Amparai, 3,500 families.
‘In Polonnaruwa over 34,000 people were affected and 16 refugee camps had been set up, housing 6,730 people. Over 1,800 houses were reported damaged here. On the 19th it was reported that the main Polonnaruwa-Habarana road was three-and-a-half feet under water, and the Polonnaruwa-Manampitiya road was still under water and impassable on the 20th. At Trincomalee, 6,400 families are reported to have been affected and the divisions of Muttur and Seruwila cut off from the mainland. The problem was aggravated when heavy rain in Amparai and Polonnaruwa during the weekend before the poll made homeless a further 31,500 and 6,574 families.
‘Matale District, too, was badly affected, and the situation there described as being “deadlier than the 1978 cyclone”. Over 100 earths1ips in this hilly region, claiming a number of lives, exacerbated the situation and the army was hampered in its rescue operations by the inability to move heavy vehicles or earthmoving equipment. Several major bridges were washed away making 40 villages inaccessible by road. Lagalla (sic) was completely cut off. Government officials estimated that nearly Rs. 14 million damage had been incurred and that some 9,000 people were homeless.
‘The President and Prime Minister flew over flood-ravaged areas on 20 December (two days before the poll), to survey the situation and discuss measures with the local officials and MPs. They gave orders for the bridges and culverts to be repaired in time for the referendum, but given the scale of the problem, it is unlikely that much could have been done. In fact, a Matale District MP remarked that most roads were so badly damaged that the ballot boxes would have to be carried with tremendous difficulty.
‘The same day, the Commissioner of Elections announced special arrangements for the referendum in these districts. It is clear from this announcement and subsequent reports that many voters would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to get to their polling stations, had their plight permitted them to think of voting at all.
‘According to the Commissioner’s statement,
“The spell of heavy rains and the consequent floods have adversely affected some of the arrangements that were being made for the conduct of the Poll …The districts most affected are Matale, Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amparai.”
‘Eight polling stations in Amparai polling division and two in Pottuvi] division were “marooned due to continuing flood waters. Attempts made to transport staff by boat (had) failed. Arrangements (had) been finalised to airlift the staff to these polling stations.” Eight stations were affected in the Ka1kudah division in Batticaloa, several in the Polonnaruwa District. In Trincomalee district 19 polling stations of Seruwila and 20 of Muttur division could not “be reached due to 5 causeways …. being under water”. “In Matale District the rain has resulted in the collapse of several bridges, two of which have cut off access to certain areas in Laggala and Rattota and over 100 earthslips have blocked the roads …. the access to some of the polling stations will now require long walks extending over 3 to 5 miles.” In fact, it was reported later that “voters in Laggala and Pailegama were cut off from their polling stations and unable to cast their votes”. The Commissioner, referring to Matale District, added that “in some of these areas voters’ access to Polling Stations have been affected. Some hamlets lie across the receeding flood water which cannot be crossed without risk.”
‘The Commissioner underlined the problems involved in transporting his polling staff under such conditions; some were to be flown in, or sent on the 20th. Voters must have encountered even greater difficulties and such is the impression generated by the conduct of the referendum as a whole, that it seems not unreasonable to expect that opposition voters would have received less assistance in crossing flood waters than “lamp” voters. In fact, the situation could have facilitated considerable impersonation by government supporters. The extremely high poll in Laggala District, in particular, resulting in a massive increase in the government vote (over 50%), cannot but lend itself to this interpretation.’
I now give some of the voting patterns:
…..‘in seven districts, the “lamp” won more votes than the President had obtained in October, on a reduced poll. In Matale, Nuwara E1iya-Maskeliya, Digamadulla, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Moneragala and Ratnapura, while the poll fell by a total of 149,910, the government managed to win 67,698 more votes than in October.’
….. ‘The highest overall swings were produced by Matale (+15.66%) and Anuradhapura (+18.65%) Districts, which also obtained the highest increase in votes for the government (“lamp”) above the October figures (i.e. +16,658 and +22,587, respectively)…..’
‘In Matale District, voting fell to 80.45%, but was still 10% higher than the national average and the highest in the country. It also recorded the highest percentage poll for the “lamp” – 73.77% of the valid vote, whereas only 58.11% of the voters (valid) had given their support to the President in October. (Table 25)
‘Conditions in Matale District as a result of heavy flooding, hardly seemed conducive to a high poll. On 20 December it was officially reported that “1,875 families were affected and 9,000 people were stranded”. 198 In Laggala, however, worst affected by floods, the poll
fell very slightly, from 88.70% to 87.40%.
‘The MP for Laggala had stated that as “most roads were badly damaged on Referendum day … ballot boxes (would) have to be carried with tremendous difficulty.” 199 On polling day itself;
“heavy rains in the catchment area swelled the Amban Ganga and as voters set out to their polling booths at approximately 7.00 a.m., the causeway went under. Voters in Laggala and Pallegarna were cut off from their polling stations and were unable to cast their votes.” (Italics added)’
Nevertheless, it appears that in Laggala electorate, 30,7U1 voters out of a registered 35,129 “managed to brave floods, earthslips and damaged causeways in order to cast their vote”. Only 460 less people turned out to vote than in October.
The government increased its majority in Matale District by 45,093 votes. It would appear that thousands of voters here who had rejected Jayewardene as a presidential candidate were satisfied with his parliament and with their local MP, and did not want a general election for at least another six years. In Laggala, it would seem, they felt so strongly about it, that though many of them could not go to vote because of the weather, they managed in one way or another to get their vote cast for the “lamp”. Over 9,000 people here, who voted against the UNP in October voted for the extension of parliament two months later, or were simply replaced by other voters.’
Two other areas affected by the floods were Seruwila and Pottuvil:
‘In Seruwila… a fair swing away from the government in October (nearly 12%) was reversed at the referendum by a swing to the “lamp” (in a considerably reduced poll). Did the fact that 19 polling stations in Seruwila and 20 in Muttur (out of a total of 47) were extremely difficult of access due to flooding, inconvenience “pot” voters more than “lamp” voters?’ The total poll did not fall very much in Muttur, despite the accessibility factor.’
‘In Pottuvil, where two stations were marooned the government share of the valid vote went from 47.29% at the presidential election to 59.28% at the referendum, and its total vote increased by nearly 6,000 votes (25.68%), though the poll had dropped very slightly. The opposition had polled 52.71% of the vote here in October, and might have been expected to win.’
I have not given here details of all the other results where weather seems to have played a part, or where a low poll gave an increased vote for the government (for those, anyone interested can see the Report which will be republished in a collection of articles in 2015).
I am concerned about the role the present weather conditions will play and hope that the Common Candidate’s campaigners will be able to surmount the obstacles this will create for them. Bad weather plays into the hands of those in power, almost always. Perhaps this is one reason for a government to hold its elections during this time of the year.