According to media reports, the National Elections Commission (NEC) has sent out directives to all State employees that persons attempting to influence co-workers, friends and subordinates to vote for a particular candidate at the November 16 presidential election would be penalised.
Earlier, NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya told the media that the use of war victory by political parties to gain mileage at the presidential election could not be allowed as war victory belonged to the nation and not to a particular party or individual.
According to the election law, the State media have to maintain the level playing field in broadcast and publications and the elections chief requested the private sector media to follow suit.
These are some of the guidelines the election law and NEC have laid down to be followed by various sectors of the society including political parties. However, realisation of the purposes of some of the guidelines seems to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
It is not clear as to what the NEC meant by “influencing” co-workers, friends and subordinates to vote for a particular candidate. People discuss politics, especially during an election campaign, at their workplaces during which people argue praising certain candidates while condemning others. Isn’t this deemed or interpreted as “influencing”?
As long as there are no derogatory or provocative remarks or hate speech instigating clashes, arguing is nothing but enjoying freedom of expression. And it is not clear as to why this directive is deemed to be not selective as political discussions among people are not confined to State institutions. They take place everywhere, in private sector workplaces, marketplaces, buses, trains, private vehicles and even paddy fields and chenas.
It is also not clear as to how a person is taken to task for this “offence.” One has to lodge a complaint with the head of his institution or with the police, but proof of the complaint would be extremely difficult to furnish.
In respect of the statement made by the NEC Chairman on the war, MP Bandula Gunawardene had questioned as to under what law that the use of war or war victory in an election campaign had been banned. Despite the stance taken by the elections chief that war victory belonged to the entire nation being acceptable, various people have the right to lay claim to credit for the part they played during the war.
There is a practical side to this question as manifested during the first media briefing by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa where a foreign journalist questioned as to what happened to those surrendered to the army after the guns fell silent at warfronts in the North and the East on May 19, 2009.
Former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa then had to talk about the war and his answer in turn provoked a debate inevitably over credit to war victory. The wartime army commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who is also a Parliamentarian now supporting New Democratic Front’s presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, had a lengthy press briefing last Friday about the roles played by him and Rajapaksa during the war. What can the elections chief do about these developments?
Last week, SLPP leaders had submitted to the NEC Chairman a graph depicting the State media highly biased towards the NDF candidate in the run up to the election. One would recall that the same happened during the last presidential election where opposition accused the then ruling party of abusing the State media. Some voluntary organisations had prepared similar graphs which proved the allegation.
However, providing equal airtime or space in print media even to all 35 candidates would not do justice, as the media has a habit of giving time and space to the candidates other than the ones they support but with adverse publicity. They broadcast or publish parts of speeches of their adversaries which might be disadvantageous or detrimental to the latter’s presidential prospects. Yet, NEC does not have a mechanism to control the contents of the media.
It would be a good idea to have election campaigns where voters make their choices only by listening to candidates, in an environment sans posters, “influences,” canvassing, violence or biased media, but it seems to a utopian and wishful thinking. Election laws and guidelines must be readjusted in a manner that they are practical, their purposes are viable and peace and reconciliation are upheld by them.