All eyes on Mahinda Deshapriya

27 March 2014 05:09 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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As the country focuses on the outcome of the Provincial Council elections in the Western and Southern provinces scheduled for Saturday all eyes will be on the man who will preside over the poll, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya.

On Tuesday Deshapriya marked three years in office as the person responsible for overseeing the country’s major elections but he has already conducted several major polls in the provinces including the landmark Northern Provincial Council elections, held for the first time in September 2013.


Deshapriya can lay claim to a long career at the Department of Elections. He joined the department in 1983 as an Assistant Commissioner, was promoted as Deputy Commissioner of Elections in 2006 and was appointed the Additional Commissioner of Elections in 2010 before assuming his current office



The upcoming polls will be crucial for both the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the main opposition parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). All three parties are keen to use the election as a barometer to test their level of public support.

The UPFA is keen to assert its dominance in the political arena. At the last provincial polls held in September 2013, it convincingly wrested control of the Central and North Western provinces but was emphatically defeated in the Northern Province by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

The UNP, outmaneuvered in elections for the last ten years is attempting to put up a public display of unity after a series of leadership squabbles that has left its support base in tatters. This is the first election it faces after the creation of a ‘Leadership Council’ in November last year.

Similarly, the JVP is facing its first electoral test after the retirement of Somawansa Amerasinghe, its leader for the past two decades. This marks a generational change and Saturday’s results will indicate whether Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s elevation to the leadership has resonated well with voters.       

Moreover, there is speculation that the government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa are awaiting the outcome of the polls to decide on dates for presidential and general elections. These polls are not due until 2016 but could be held earlier if Saturday’s results are favourable to the ruling party.

The election will also be critically observed by the international community which is questioning the government’s commitment to democratic ideals. However, when voters go to the polls on Saturday, the United Nations Human Rights Council would already have voted on its resolution on Sri Lanka.

Thus Deshapriya will be supervising a critical election. There are already indications that he is not only willing to talk tough but act tough as well. This augurs well for the credibility of the office of the Commissioner of Elections.

That almost came into disrepute during the tenure of Deshapriya’s predecessor, Dayananda Dissanayake. Dissanayake looked visibly shaken while declaring the results of the last presidential election and later spoke of the many pressures he was subjected to, famously calling it ‘aathathiya’.

In stark contrast to the mild mannered and soft spoken Dissanayake, Deshapriya has an imposing presence and appears to like the limelight. He hails from Ambalangoda and schooled at Dharmasoka College, an alma mater he shares with former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka.

Deshapriya can lay claim to a long career at the Department of Elections. He joined the department in 1983 as an Assistant Commissioner, was promoted as Deputy Commissioner of Elections in 2006 and was appointed the Additional Commissioner of Elections in 2010 before assuming his current office.

He is the country’s sixth Commissioner of Elections and joins a list of distinguished public servants that include A. Arulpragasam, Felix Dias Abeysinghe, M.A. Piyasekera, S.M.L. Marikkar, Chandrananda de Silva and Dayananda Dissanayake.

Commissioner Deshapriya is also the brother of Sunanda Deshapriya, a controversial journalist who was the editor of the ‘Yukthiya’ newspaper and was the Convenor of the Free Media Movement. He now lives overseas and continues to be a strident critic of the government.   

Deshapriya’s political loyalties are unknown and to his credit he has kept aloof of party politics in the period that he has been in office and acquired a reputation of being an efficient and impartial officer. It is a standing that will be put to the test in the next few days.

For now though Deshapriya has been outspoken enough to critcise the UPFA’s campaign and even the ‘Janapathi Janahamuwa’, a question and answer programme presided over by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and telecast over the state media in the weeks leading up to the polls.

Following protests by Opposition parties who claimed that the UPFA was indulging in election propaganda using the state media, Deshapriya publicly castigated the government for broadcasting the programmes but pointed out that private media networks were also biased in their coverage.

Officially, he then wrote to the Presidential Secretariat stating his position that programmes such as the ‘Janapathi Janahamuwa’ must not coincide with elections. The President’s office reportedly concurred with this view but Opposition parties complain that the damage had already been done.

Deshapriya’s comments reflected the fact that although he had the freedom to make observations regarding election laws that are observed in the breach, the powers vested in him hardly allowed him to act decisively to prevent even blatant violations of the election laws.

Deshapriya has been forthright about his responsibilities. “For some, I am a puppet, and for others I am a dictator. The very reason I receive flak from the Opposition and the Government shows that I have been impartial and that is what I want to be,” he said in a recent interview.

He has also pointed out that under recent changes to election laws introduced with the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, his powers are limited and compare poorly with the powers enjoyed by his counterpart in India. “I try to remain neutral and execute whatever the powers I have,” he says.

Deshapriya says he is doing his best to ensure a free and fair poll on Saturday. Among the new measures he has initiated is a ban on campaigning through SMS messages using mobile telephones. Deshapriya has instructed the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to put a stop to this tactic.

In a sense, this week’s election will be a trial run for Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya. With the General and Presidential Elections due within the next two years, he will know that his greatest challenges lie ahead but Saturday could provide a foretaste     of events to come.

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