Controversy over Maharagama Urban Council
Following campaigns led by candidates starkly divided on various issues, Sri Lanka on February 11 woke up to the news of a surprise win for the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. What was supposed to be an uneventful and peaceful election resulted in turmoil with uncertainty ruling the local political landscape.
While many were concerned over the future of the Unity Government, a peculiar incident reported from Maharagama meanwhile piqued the interests of voters and candidates alike. Ahead of the February elections, the SLPP nominations to the Maharagama Urban Council were rejected in early December. As a result SLPP announced its support for the independent group (Group 2) contesting with a motorcycle as its symbol. Following these developments the Elections Commission explained that no candidate could resign from contesting until the elections were held. The Commission stated that though some political parties announced their backing for independent groups, members of the elected independent group could not be replaced by members of any other political party.
The candidate elected from the Rukmale Division, Bombuwala Devage Josephine is in fact eighty years old! One of these candidates is a resident of Ampara, but has now become a council member. This exploitation by SLPP has been approved by the public as well
However on February 11, reports emerged that candidates from the victorious independent group in Maharagama were not residents of the council’s jurisdiction. According to these reports --with the exception of a few -- most candidates on the motorcycle group’s list, were not residents of Maharagama. The addresses listed next to their names read as Divulapitiya, Badalgama and Wellawatta.
Many politicians challenged the appointments and questioned their faith in the new electoral system. Critics included the Janatha Vimukthi Permanuna and the Social Democratic Party which vehemently criticized the incident. The Daily Mirror spoke to the General Secretary of the Social Democratic Party, Thusitha Balasooriya, who took to social media criticising the candidates elected to the Maharagama Urban Council.
“The SLPP claimed victory owing to the new electoral system. The objective of introducing the mixed electoral system was to give every village a representative in a Local Government Authority. This concept has been exploited by the SLPP. The party’s continual request to the public was to vote for the ‘Pohottuwa’ or flower bud symbol urging them to heed no attention to the candidate they would vote for. The result of this was the election of six candidates of the same family, namely: Bombuwala Devage Samanmala Janaki, Bombuwala Devage Josephine, Devage Lakmini Madushani, Devage Vimalawathi, Bombuwala Devage Sujatha Dharmapriya and Bombuwala Devage Sarath Dharmapriya,” Balasooriya said.
“The candidate elected from the Rukmale Division, Bombuwala Devage Josephine is in fact eighty years old! One of these candidates is a resident of Ampara, but has now become a council member. This exploitation by SLPP has been approved by the public as well,” he said questioning the rationale of electing such candidates.
“We have discovered that the Independent Group No 2 which contested for the Maharagama Urban Council was paid a sum of Rs. 5,000,000. Prior to receiving this sum an affidavit has been obtained from the independent group as well. A separate agreement had been signed stating that the elected candidates of the independent group would tender resignation making way for those in the rejected nominations list of the SLPP. Such corrupt acts would not only distort public opinion, but also lead to a significant waste of public monies. Unfortunately this is not just the picture of Maharagama, but the situation observed wherever the SLPP has claimed victory,” Balasooriya alleged.
There may be a repetition of what took place in the Colombo Municipal Council several years ago, where the UNP nominations list for the Colombo Municipal Council was rejected, an independent group contesting under the spectacle symbol secured 23 seats with the support
of the UNP
The Daily Mirror approached the Executive Director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon to query his stance on the developments in Maharagama.
“When the SLPP got its nomination list for Maharagama rejected they announced that it would be backing an independent group for the UC, which was their alternative. This is completely legal. Now we are faced with a situation where the resignation of elected candidates can make way for other candidates to replace them. There are legal provisions to do that. However to make way for this, we need an environment where every single elected member has to resign. There is no exception for said process,” Tennakoon opined.
“The SLPP had an agreement that they would support this independent group. They arrived at this decision at the very last moment, even after the postal votes were cast. What we are witnessing is actually a victory in spite of this group not receiving their postal votes.”
Meanwhile the Eksath Lanka Maha Saba Party contesting under the ‘snake’ symbol in Thirappane, defeated the UNP, SLFP and JVP with 32.96% votes. Another Independent Group contesting under the Rhino symbol won a majority of 39.87% of votes in Mahiyangana. According to Tennakoon however this is no cause for surprise. “It must be noted that this is nothing new and it was reported from several areas including Mahiyanagana and Tirappaney.”
Tennakoon believes the problem does not lie in the manner in which the Maharagama candidates earned their votes. “The majority of these contestants never came to Maharagama, they never even knew that they are candidates for this particular election. But they won a considerable number of votes. After they were elected we looked for these people. We learned that the party leader had some understanding with MP Dinesh Gunawardena and some other Joint Opposition members. This agreement too is within the law,” Tennakoon reiterated.
“The problem now is that there are some candidates who do not want to resign. These candidates have been consulting opinions of experts about the next course of action. They are constitutionally elected members and it is up to them to decide whether or not to assume duties as council members. For those seeking to become members of the Maharagama Urban Council when the elected candidate resigns, it will not be an easy task.”
“On the other hand there may be a repetition of what took place in the Colombo Municipal Council several years ago,” Tennakoon said.
He referred to the May 2006 elections, where the UNP nominations list for the Colombo Municipal Council was rejected, an independent group contesting under the spectacle symbol secured 23 seats with the support of the UNP. “A Trishaw Driver performed better that anyone else during these elections and eventually became the mayor. We were very watchful of the developments during this tussle. There were several allegations regarding some officers in the CMC. To our surprise no corruption charges were levelled against this gentleman.”
This group comprises residents of Divulapitiya. They have been registered as voters in this district, but have not registered in Maharagama. We have not been able to verify these reports. According to our preliminary findings, these individuals seem to be unaware of the fact that they have been candidates of this election
“With such experiences in mind, it is my opinion that this sort of environment will come into play in Maharagama as well.
The people of Maharagama are fortunate if it transpires in a positive way,” Tennakoon opined.
“We must keep in mind that these candidates were voted into power despite the presence of the candidates fielded by the opposition, including very senior politicians. The candidates who won in Maharagama may not be the most qualified and are mostly ordinary people. I have observed that some of these candidates are very capable of serving the community and they will not resign. Through this process, a better balance will be created,” he added.
Speaking on the electoral system the CaFFE Executive Director said the situation in Maharagama is not a failure of the system or the candidate. “It is a failure of the voter. The situation will not be completely negative and would not be ridden by corrupt politics as expected. The process that is in formation will be a time consuming process, and will not happen overnight.”
The Daily Mirror also spoke to Executive Director of People’s Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL) Rohana Hettiarachchi to obtain his views on the matter. “According to the law, when nominations are submitted, they require certain qualifications to be registered as a candidate for elections of the respective area of authority. Qualifications to be registered as a candidate at Local Authorities Elections are detailed in a separate section explaining the registration of electors,” Hettiarachchi said.
“Accordingly a person, who was on the first day of June in the year of the commencement of the preparation of the register, ordinarily resident in any area within the electoral district, is entitled to have his name entered in the electoral list. According to the Elections Commission, ordinarily resident means, the said person could be a resident of this particular electoral area, even though the initial residence is not the same. For instance if a candidate’s temporary residence is in Colombo, whereas his initial residence is elsewhere, he can be considered as an ordinary resident of that area where he dwells most of the time. Therefore such registration is not mandatory for contesting,” Hettiarachchi said.
“The problem in this instance as reported to PAFFREL, is that this group comprises residents of Divulapitiya. They have been registered as voters in this district, but have not registered in Maharagama. We have not been able to verify these reports. According to our preliminary findings, these individuals seem to be unaware of the fact that they have been candidates of this election. So the issue lies in the fact that voters of Maharagama were misled. I view this incident as an instance where the voter has been deceived,” he stressed.
Hettiarachchi said when the Election Bill was tabled concerns were voiced regarding this matter. “We were of the opinion that a candidate should be a resident of the respective area, which is the only way to ensure real representation to Local Government bodies. However the present legal provisions have been established otherwise. The basic values of the electoral system is diminished from such occurrences,” he said.
“Even though similar incidents were reported from several other areas, only Maharagama has been highlighted. We have received information that a group of garment workers have been included in a list of nominations in Polonnaruwa. Deception has been carried out not only through independent groups. Some candidates have misled voters stating that government officers would be elected to office. Others had canvassed for votes fielding one candidate in the list, but presenting another in the eye of the voter. These were carried out to gain the popular vote. Yet another case was reported where a group of individuals who were not residents of the area had contested at elections.
If they are challenged in court, they would have to prove that they are qualified to register in that area. Looking at the overall picture we have observed that voters have been deceived and misled,” Hettiarachchi detailed. Asked if there were legal provisions for such incidents to occur, he said as long as such incidents are not challenged in court, the Elections Commission would only reject the nominations based on the following factors:
1. If the complete deposit is not made
2. If the women’s quota has not been fulfilled
3. If the secretary has not signed the nominations list
4. If the secretary’s signature has not been certified
5. If the representative does not submit the nominations list
6. If the nominations list is not submitted before the deadline
Hettiarachchi added the Elections Commission is not equipped to evaluate the qualifications of each candidate within such a short period of time. “If candidates are corrupt, or have been charged in court, if they are residents of the area, these factors should be challenged in court by concerned parties. Political parties attempt to represent the people during elections. The basic premise is that they will not commit a fraud or deceive the voter.”
If any person finds that these candidates are not residents of the council’s jurisdiction, their appointments can be challenged in court. Individuals who do not meet the qualifications under the aforementioned Local Government Elections Ordinance, cannot become a council member
‘Provisions in law to challenge erroneous appointments’ -Premathilake
The Daily Mirror also spoke to the Legal Officer of the Ministry of Provincial Councils & Local Government, Gayani Premathilake to confirm if legal action can be initiated against candidates who have not fulfilled the necessary qualifications. “The Local Authority Election Ordinance specifies that every person who is not disqualified by section 9, shall be qualified at any time for election as a member of any local authority if the person is, on the first day of June in the year of the commencement of the preparation or revision of that register, ordinarily resident in that electoral area. To qualify as ordinarily resident the GS has to certify that a person resides in this area,” she confirmed.
Premathilake stated that there are provisions in the law to challenge any appointment found to be erroneous. “If any person finds that these candidates are not residents of the council’s jurisdiction, their appointments can be challenged in court. Individuals who do not meet the qualifications under the aforementioned Local Government Elections Ordinance, cannot become a council
member,” she said.
Several attempts to contact the Elections Commission failed. However according to available data, the Daily Mirror has observed that the anomalies reported in the Local Government Election were not limited to Maharagama alone. The confusion of voters and doubts over qualifications of the candidates as being ordinarily resident of their respective areas were reported from many parts of the island.