A wrangle over election ethics

12 June 2020 03:03 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Two and a half months after entertaining nominations for this year’s parliamentary election, the National Elections Commission (NEC) had published its “Code of Conduct for Political Parties /Independent Groups and Candidates contesting Elections” on June 3 in the Gazette. And on Wednesday the NEC announced that the Parliamentary election would be held on August 5.   
The threat posed by COVID-19 seems to have freed the NEC from all legal bounds in respect of holding this election. There were no legally valid deadlines or any time frame within which the election had to be held, after coronavirus started to haunt the country. Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya earlier said that it was the coronavirus that would decide the election date. Later, when the ruling SLPP mounted its veiled pressure to hold the election he had stated that election would be held in 60 to 70 days after the health authorities give him the green light to do so, but there is no such law in the country.   
The nod given by the health authorities too had no legal basis. They decided it was the opportune time for the signal, on the grounds that no COVID-19 cases had been reported from the society for the past one month. And the NEC in turn seems to have fixed the date for the poll based on its convenience, as there is no guiding law in deciding the time frame for the poll.   


The new Parliament that would be elected at the August 5 election too have to meet as and when it is possible for the stakeholders, especially for the President, unless he sought the opinion of the Supreme Court, as the Constitutionally stipulated deadline for the purpose, June 2 would have been long past then. It must be recalled that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told a gathering of monks supportive of the government on April 24 at the Presidential election that he would summon the Parliament as and when it is possible.  
Earlier, despite the mounting threat of COVID-19, the SLPP wanted the NEC to hold the election within May. The Elections Chief in a letter dated March 31 requested President Rajapaksa to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the options in the event the election could not be held before June 2. President’s Secretary Dr. P.B.Jayasundera in his reply on April 4 informed NEC that the President was of the view that it is not possible at that point of time to state that the election cannot be held on or before May 28.


This, in a way amounts to informing the NEC to hold the election before May 28. Apparently left with no option, NEC Chairman wrote a letter to Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole, one of the three members of the commission who was in Jaffna then, suggesting to agree with the last date suggested by the President’s Secretary. It was Professor Hoole who prevented it from happening, on the grounds that it was too early to conduct a poll before May 28, given the COVID-19 situation in the country. This seems to have irked the SLPP.  
It was against that backdrop that the NEC issued its code of conduct for political parties and politicians. And at the same time a friction was developing between Professor Hoole and the politicians as well as the media affiliated to the SLPP. It was and is an interesting situation where the Commission wants the candidates and the political parties to abide by the rules and ethics while the SLPP wants them applied to the members of the Commission as well.  


Earlier in 2018, these politicians and media had been incensed by a Fundamental Rights petition filed by Professor Hoole against the dissolution of Parliament by the then President Maithripala Sirisena after his attempt to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. They recently accused Hoole that he took his daughter, Elilini to the Elections Secretariat in Rajagiriya on May 18 without undergoing the mandatory 14 day quarantine after returning from the UK. He rejected the allegation saying his daughter has the quarantine certificate signed by Army Commander Lt. General Shavendra Silva and Director General of Health Services, Dr.Anil Jasinghe.   


Now, again Professor Hoole is amidst another controversy over a statement he made during an interview with the Jaffna based DAN TV. The SLPP leaders accuse that Hoole had stated during the interview that people should not vote for the SLPP while he and his sympathisers and those who are against the SLPP are denying it. Hoole says that the SLPP was angry, as they believed that a political office at the Jaffna Kachcheri was removed, after he complained about it.   
Interestingly, except for him and SLPP national list candidate Mohamed Ali Sabri, all others involved in the debate over the interview seem to be Sinhalese who are struggling to outsmart each other, as they are not sure of what really he had said. Both groups are apparently struggling to find the translation of the relevant part of Professor Hoole’s interview, in a country where around 5 million Tamil speaking people live.   
What really they want is a translation that suits to their political objectives, and both groups are circulating social media posts with purported translations of the interview which are diametrically opposed. However, SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam had lodged a complaint with the Election Commission against its controversial member, over the matter.  


EC Chairman Deshapriya said on June 6 that he has first to obtain a translation of the controversial statement and then ask Professor Hoole what he really meant by it. This would have disappointed the SLPP, as Hoole had already denied that he asked the people not to vote for the SLPP. The Election Chief’s strategy to resolve the issue can also be controversial as one might think that Hoole after making the wrong statement at least as a slip of the tongue might deny it in his response to the Chairman’s query.   
People make unwitting blunders when writing and speaking to media. A person who writes would have the opportunity to correct it - in fact, apart from his own corrections there are two departments consisting of sub-editors and proof readers in every newspaper office in any country to do so - whereas one who speaks to the electronic media would not. This is a major difference in print and electronic media.  


In fact, Professor Hoole neither directly asked the people not to vote for the SLPP, as alleged by the party nor did he directly ask them not to vote the cheats at the relevant point, as those who are against the SLPP claim. It was something in between which one can construe either way, but more towards the SLPP claim. At a latter point he says that the whole system was built in a manner that protects the rogue politicians and he was ashamed to say that such a person is his representative.  
Coming to the code of conduct issued by the NEC, indeed it is a very good document in terms of ethics that have to be adhered to by political parties and candidates. However, it is a well known fact that it has a remote practicability. For instance, the code calls on the parties to “Select candidates who can devote themselves to the future well-being of the citizens of Sri Lanka by fulfilling the objectives of the constitutional bodies to which they are to be elected, and who conduct their campaigns in a disciplined and decent manner.” Even if one innocently believes that politicians would abide by this ethical aspect, the code reached them two and a half months after they selected the candidates.  


It also says; Select candidates based on their past conduct and good behaviour, respect for the law, non-conviction before courts, dedication to serve the society etc., avoid persons who use their wealth or social status to the detriment of society. One who reads this clause and the previous one would naturally visualise the ugly scenes that were created in Parliament during the Constitutional crisis in 2018 and the testimonies of some witnesses before the Presidential Commission on the Central Bank bond scam.   
Veteran leader of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) D.E.W.Gunasekara had told recently that only a handful of eligible MPs in the last Parliament  could contribute to law making, policy making, finance monitoring and productive representation of people. However, almost all of those MPs have been fielded by various political parties as candidates this time as well.   
It is sad that we are reminded of the fate of the lofty ideals of the March 12 declaration after going through the code of conduct for political parties and candidates.  

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