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Let no one distort the will of the sovereign people

15 November 2019 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The 2015 presidential election’s man of the match:  NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya gestures as he speaks during a press conference on Wednesday. AFP

 

Tomorrow’s presidential election is a D-day. It is the day on which we should feel that we are the true kings and queens of this county as we exercise our franchise to elect our chief servant.


In Sri Lanka, we take pride of being Asia’s oldest democracy. We first exercised universal suffrage in 1931, four years after it was introduced in Britain. In Article 3, Sri Lanka’s present constitution states that sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. In explaining what sovereignty is, the article says it includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and franchise. 


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also recognises franchise as an inalienable right of citizens. The declaration’s Article 21 says, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. …The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures.”


The people’s right to elect their government is also emphasised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. The fact that human rights charters give pride of place to franchise highlights how important universal suffrage is. 


Any distortion of the will of the people or any attempt to prevent the sovereign people from exercising their franchise is a serious crime. It is tantamount to a coup against the sovereign.
However much democratic nations’ constitutions and world human rights charters hold universal suffrage as supreme, politicians, driven by their greed to win elections at any cost, continue to distort the will of the people with impunity.


This is happening even in the United States where the culprits are often Republican Party politicians. It was through the well calculated disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Afro Americans on the basis of their past criminal records that President George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. It is alleged even today that in many states where the Republicans control the local legislature, laws are passed to make voter registration difficult for Afro-Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, who are more likely to vote for the Democratic Party. In addition to disenfranchisement of likely Democrats, the people’s democratic will is also distorted by fake news campaigns on Facebook and foreign power intervention as seen in Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory. 


In Sri Lanka, we may brag about being the oldest Asian democracy, but look at our shameful record of distorting the people’s will.  In 1981, there was mass scale election rigging during the District Development Council elections in the north.  It is said that one of the factors which triggered the 30-year separatist war was the criminal distortion of the northern people’s will during that election.  Then we have this infamous 2010 presidential election, which stands out as an example how an election should not be held. It is alleged that the then election commissioner went missing for several hours while the counting was on and that a political party strongman was seen inside the election secretariat. After an extraordinary delay, during which rumours about a computer jilmart (manipulation) gathered pace, the missing election commissioner appeared to declare Mahinda Rajapaksa as the winner and explain he had to conduct the election under a severe ‘Athathiya’ (tension). Months later, in a garbage dump, bundles of half burnt ballot papers marked for the ‘losing’ candidate Sarath Fonseka were found. The United National Party’s then deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya, made a complaint to the police, but as with many complaints that require questioning of the strong and the mighty, this complaint too lies in the police morgue. Also during the 2010 election, many people, especially those from the UNP citadel of Colombo Central’s Keselwatte area, complained their names had been struck off the voter register.


Similar allegations have surfaced this time, too. It is said that in Colombo and suburbs, several voters have complained that their names are not on the voter list. Some insisted that they had handed over their duly filled registration forms to their Grama Niladharis. It is alleged that unscrupulous Grama Niladharis deliberately deleted the names of voters who are likely to vote for a particular party. 


Given the dishonesty of most of our politicians and officials, we the citizens should learn to outsmart them at every turn. We need to hand over the voter registration forms on time and check whether our names are on the list when the National Election Commission uploads the list on its website. Usually, the NEC gives a grace period during which those who find their names are not on the list can take corrective measures as spelt out by the NEC. 


Allegations that Grama Niladharis were disenfranchising likely voters of a particular party were also found in a media statement released by NEC commissioner Ratnajeevan Hoole. He also alleges that certain Returning Officers and Assistant/Deputy Election Commissioners are biased and raised concerns about the integrity of the election process. He also draws attention to certain people who are carrying out a misinformation campaign in the East. “I am nervous about the election. I am in the East after giving lectures on how to vote. The pro-boycott forces are telling people the wrong way to vote. Those in the East who want a change of party are also teaching people the wrong way to vote,” he says.Prof. Hoole says he has called on the authorities to suspend these officials. 


If these allegations are true, they amount to bureaucratic violence against the citizens’ right to vote. There is little evidence that NEC Chief Mahinda Deshapriya has heeded the advice of his fellow commissioner, with whom he is said to be having differences of opinion over various issues.


Mr. Deshapriya was hailed as the man of the match for his attempt at making the election process fool proof during the 2015 presidential election. But this time around, he has come under flak for not acting decisively against errant media organisations for blatantly violating his guidelines. When asked, he attributes his helplessness to the lacuna in the laws. This was also his reply when he was asked about a controversy over an affidavit. Playing blame game won’t assure a free and fair poll, but the implementation of the law in spirit and letter will. But this does not mean we should not give the NEC the credit it deserves. The NEC chief has ensured that the campaign period was largely peaceful. This was also due to the cooperation candidates have extended to him. But he needs to do much more to guarantee that the sovereign people’s will is not distorted or robbed by an unscrupulous politician with the help of corrupt officials. 


To do this, what better time than now when we face a crucial election and when democracy lovers worldwide mourn the death of India’s former election chief T.N. Seshan who carried out a determined campaign to cleanse India’s corrupt electoral process. 
Can Mr. Deshpariya win the man of the match award this time too? 

 

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