ith the dissolution of Parliament at midnight Friday after a tense week of speculation, conflicting reports and contradictions, the sovereign people of Sri Lanka will on August 17 get another opportunity to elect 196 members to represent them in the supreme legislative body.
The widely respected Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, told a news conference on Saturday that under the 19th Constitutional Amendment, he had received new powers and would not hesitate to use them to sternly deal with any public official or candidate who violated election laws.
Mr. Deshapriya - who retired this month when he reached the age of 60 but has been asked to continue till the Constitutional Council in the new Parliament appointed an Independent Elections Commission – warned that officials or candidates found guilty of abusing public property or resources could be jailed for up to three years.
We hope and believe that Mr. Deshapriya would put his words into action to curb or stop, what was widely seen as the worst abuse of public servants, resources and funds by the former regime during the January Presidential Election.
The Commissioner said that under the 19th Amendment, he could exercise Police powers also and no Police transfers could be made without his approval after the nomination week began on July 6 and the polls were held on August 17. He appealed that without waiting till July 6, he would be happy if Police transfers without his approval, were stopped immediately.
Issuing the directives to ensure a free and fair election, the Commissioner said independent candidates should not come forward as proxies for recognised party candidates, who could get more publicity and open more election offices in the name of the counterfeit candidates.
He also warned all candidates that they would be violating the laws and ethics if they gave incentives to buy the votes. This warning came in the aftermath of allegations that as much as Rs. 250 billion in public funds had been abused to influence people or buy votes at the January 8 election, with the illegal incentives ranging from low-interest loans to thousands of motorcycles.
The media - one of the four key players in the maintenance of good governance, democracy and social justice – will again be called upon to play a vital role in the August 17 General Elections.
In terms of the original draft of the 19th Amendment, the Elections Commissioner was to be given powers to take action against any media group that violated election laws by carrying out false or malicious propaganda or giving prominence to one party. The Opposition, which had a majority in the dissolved Parliament, used its powers to scrap this clause. This has put the Commissioner on a greasy pole. Mr. Deshapriya told the news conference that under the 19th Amendment he had control over the activities of State media institutions during election time.
But he had no such control over private media institutions other than issuing guidelines, which he hoped they would follow voluntarily. Mr. Deshapriya, known not only for his integrity but also for his quips, said that this situation regarding the media was like asking the CTB buses to follow road rules and allowing the private buses to break the rules.
He said he hoped that journalists and their institution heads would assist the Commissioner so that the same set of guidelines would be followed by the state and private media. While the Commissioner has pledged to ensure free and fair elections, and assured there would be no so-called computer jilmarts in the counting process, the recognised parties have a major responsibility to ensure that the new political culture of this new era will be continued to build a new Sri Lanka.
Election-monitoring groups and others have urged the major parties, especially to ensure that those who are nominated are coming forward to sincerely serve the people and not to indulge in a big business by plundering the wealth and resources of the country.President Maithripala Sirisena has repeatedly pledged he had no intention of becoming a king or lord and master, who dominates the people or plunders their wealth. Instead he has described himself as the chief servant leader of the people and we hope that the candidates would also have the vision of reaching this same level of statesmanship.