With the introduction of the Donoughmore Constitution back in 1927, all Sri Lankans were granted the right to vote amid a fully functional democratic structure. Prior to its introduction, the right to vote was limited to wealthy and educated males above 21 years of age. Over two million Sri Lankans live abroad while most of them directly contribute to the economy. But their fundamental right to vote is neglected as the existing legal framework has not yet been amended to make their vote count. For the past 70 years, they haven’t had a say in the electoral process in the country although Article 4 (e) of the 1978 Constitution states that every citizen who has reached age 18 could exercise his or her franchise at the election of the President of the Republic, Members of the Parliament or at any referendum. Universal franchise is a fundamental element of democracy, but 90 years after the introduction of the Donoughmore Constitution, whether every Sri Lankan, living in the country as well as abroad is exercising his or her right to vote remains a question. In this backdrop the Daily Mirror sheds light on Out-of-Country Voting (OCV), practical limitations and whether Sri Lanka could bring about a mechanism in the near future.
OCV and why does it matter
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) OCV can have a real and substantive value for the political inclusion of diasporas. In particular, when elections are viewed as a peace building tool, OCV can play an important role in post-conflict or transitional elections. By facilitating the engagement of the diaspora through OCV, they could be stakeholders in peace and democracy-building efforts in their home countries. On the other hand it could also enhance democratic legitimacy in any post-conflict environment. At present, 151 out 216 countries included in the International IDEA Voting from Abroad database have in place a legal framework for OCV. However, granting the right to vote is at the discretion of each state, as international law creates no legal obligations for states to enfranchise their citizens abroad.
- By facilitating the engagement of the diaspora through OCV, they could be stakeholders in peace and democracy
- On the other hand most Ambassadors are political appointees. You need trusted polling agents to be present at the polling stations. But this could be easily done by an electronic voting system
- The only exemption is for government servants who could cast their vote through the postal voting system
- However, the challenge is to what extent are they aware about the ground realities in the country. The main source of information for those who are living abroad would be media
Challenges at hand
According to the Elections Commission of Sri Lanka, there’s no provision in the Electoral Act to accommodate votes by Sri Lankans living abroad. Postal voting cannot be provided due to various practical issues too. For example some Sri Lankans working abroad do not have a permanent address, some don’t carry a valid Sri Lankan passport and some have travelled there by boat. On the other hand, if they are eligible then they have to come to an Embassy to vote. This means that they have to travel long distances to reach an Embassy based in the capital of that particular country. Another issue is the cost of postal voting. The ballot papers need to be sealed, sent in separate envelopes, certified by officers and it’s a long process. Cost of printing a ballot paper itself is time consuming and requires human hours. When asked about implementing an electronic voting system, whether everybody would take the trouble to go through a security check such as entering a captcha and place their votes remains a question. In that case people need to be trained at least once.
The Daily Mirror also learned that many Sri Lankans in the country itself haven’t registered their names in electoral registers owing to various reasons. Among them are a certain section of the elite crowd and people living in condominiums and apartments mainly because they are not interested and do not want to take the burden of going to a polling station to vote.
Apart from those living abroad, there is another section of Sri Lankans who don’t get to vote at all. The only exemption is for government servants who could cast their vote through the postal voting system. Those who cannot exercise their right to vote include :
- Cabin crew
- Doctors on call
- Bus/train drivers and conductors
- Staff employed at the expressways
- Porters working in Pettah
- Hotel staff
- Remand prisoners
- Homeless people
Final PSC report yet to be passed in Parliament
In order to formulate a mechanism to enable Sri Lankans living abroad to exercise their franchise at future elections, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was appointed. In his comments, Sunil Handunneththi, a Member of the PSC said that the Committee agreed on several criteria. “One of them is that the voter should have visited Sri Lanka at least once within a period of five years before the date of the election. When it comes to registering the name, if nominations have been called in July, he should register his name between the period of January to July. We also discussed whether we are going to limit this opportunity to those in foreign employment only or for all Sri Lankans living abroad.”
“have the Embassy as a polling station”
Handunneththi further said that the Committee also discussed how the voting process would be conducted. “This is already in existence in 115 other countries. One way we could do this is to have the Embassy as a polling station and the other way is through postal votes. In some countries they open postal votes from the day nominations are announced. Then we also need to consider the existing legal framework in the respective country, how to do an election campaign, countering and monitoring election violence, deploying Elections Commissioners abroad among other practical concerns.”
When asked if it could be implemented as a pilot project in an upcoming election he said that it would be possible during the general election. “But the final report submitted by the Committee is yet to be passed in Parliament. This was because at the time the Chairman of the Committee was Foreign Affairs Minister Thalatha Atukorale. But following her resignation she has stopped responding to Committee matters although she still holds the position.”
Everything is possible if the laws could be changed : Prof. Hoole
“We have the technology to implement an Electronic Voting System (EVS) but nobody is taking the initiative,” said Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, member of the Elections Commission. “There are many practical challenges when looking at a system to accommodate votes by Sri Lankans living abroad. For example where do they vote? Embassies are a silly suggestion because if you’re in US you wouldn’t travel to Washington D.C to caste your vote. On the other hand most Ambassadors are political appointees.
“We have the technology to implement an eVS”
You need trusted polling agents to be present at the polling stations. But this could be easily done by an electronic voting system. Everything is possible if the laws could be changed. We have been making this request for almost four years in Parliament but it has fell on deaf ears.”
Every Sri Lankan has a right to vote
: Dr. Saravanamuttu
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said that every Sri Lankan should have the right to vote. “But political parties have vested interests and votes from abroad could be manipulated. These kinds of practices should be stopped. Methods like postal votes and postal ballots should be considered. He said that those with dual citizenships could also vote and that the only restriction is to contest at an election.”
“But political parties have vested interests”
An advanced voting system has to be in place
According to Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director at People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) said that there are nearly two million people living abroad, especially those in unskilled labour. “They bring in a lot of foreign revenue and there has to be a system for them to vote. But practically speaking they can’t travel long distances to vote and there has to be a change in the legal framework. On the other hand patients and even elections observers don’t get a chance to vote. Therefore there has to be an advanced voting system in place.”
“they can’t travel long distances to vote”
Will they be aware of ground realities in the country? : Youth leader
In his comments, a youth leader who wished to remain anonymous said that as a democratic country every Sri Lankan citizen should have the right to vote and this shall also include those who are living abroad. “However, the challenge is to what extent are they aware about the ground realities in the country. The main source of information for those who are living abroad would be media and they would also be heavily reliant on their personal informants such as friends and family. Therefore, if this comes into play it should be those who have at least visited the country in a period of one year so they are familiar with the situation in Sri Lanka.”
“to what extent are they aware about the ground realities”
He further said that if it comes to play, politicians would heavily target the diaspora living abroad.
Issues of concern
In the case of refugees, a recent report by International IDEA on Political Participation of Refugees highlight that they will be excluded, symbolically and physically from participating in electoral processes in their home country. Even when they are formally entitled to vote from abroad in elections of their home country they may not want to do so.
After conducting a series of in-depth interviews with refugees, International IDEA concluded that many of them don’t want to communicate personal information to their country of origin for fear of persecution. Refugees’ participation in post-conflict may be interpreted by their host country as an indication that they have re-availed themselves of the protection of their home country. As a result there’s a risk that their refugee status be revoked, thus jeopardizing their right to stay and prompting repatriation.
International IDEA concluded that many of them don’t want to communicate personal information