A record number of 41 persons had placed their deposits with a view to tender nominations for the November 16 Presidential election. Yet, only 35 nominations were tendered yesterday. Six people who had placed deposits including former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and Parliamentarian Kumara Welgama did not submit their nominations.
No doubt 35 is too huge a number as well as a record number. Even when 33 persons had placed deposits, Chairman of the National Elections Commission (NEC) Mahinda Deshapriya expressed concern last week over the additional expenses that would be incurred by the public coffers due to the high number of candidates.
Mr. Deshapriya told media that the cost of the election, which was previously estimated at Rs. 4 to 4.5 billion, could rise up to Rs.5 billion and therefore it is clear that now it could exceed Rs. 5 billion. Sometimes it could be an additional Rs. one billion.
Pointing out the reasons for the puffing up of expenditure, he said that a large number of candidates would compel them to make more logistical arrangements with more officials deployed on duty. Even in the biggest schools, classrooms can hold only up to 45 persons at most, which means the Elections Secretariat might have to consider putting up temporary centres or find bigger places, he said.
The high number of candidates not only increase financial costs of the election but also the environmental cost, with posters being put up on every flat surface in every nook and corner in the country and polythene banners and decorations being strewn on all roads.
Despite the number of candidates being so high, it is a well-known fact that only two candidates, Gotabaya Rajapaksa fielded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Sajith Premadasa, the nominee of the United National Front (UNF) would be in the real race. And interestingly none of the other candidates, except for Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the candidate of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led coalition, the National People’s Power (NPP) might believe that they could obtain at least one hundred thousand votes, leave alone winning.
The reasons for many candidates entering the fray vary - some being genuine and some being not. Candidates such as Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Duminda Nagamuwa of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) are using the election as in the other elections to propagate their policies among the people. Dissanayake, in addition, seems to be attempting to instil confidence in the people that his party, the JVP would be another main contender next time, by swelling his vote bank this time to exceed one million.
Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa paid deposits just as a “back-up” candidate for the SLPP, in the light of the case filed by two civil society activists against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s citizenship. Except for these candidates, the others’ motive is not clear. However, there is a high possibility of proxies for the two main candidates being among them. Already it has been accused that some candidates are in the fray to prevent votes of members of security forces from drifting towards one of the two main candidates. Another candidate seems to have entered the race just to dilute the Muslim concentration in the vote bank of one of the two main presidential aspirants.
Playing proxy in elections is unethical and a hindrance to a level playing field. Yet, unlike ensuring the concept of “free” in an election, ensuring the concept of “fair” is very difficult, as it is difficult for the authorities to prove, though they are sure of the deceitfulness of the candidacy of a person. In spite of the chairman of the NEC having announced that persons entering the fray in support of another candidate would be dealt with, the practicality of it is very remote. Therefore, the very beginning of the election seems to be not fair.
The Government or the Elections Commission cannot limit the number of candidates in any election, since contesting as well as voting in elections is a democratic right of the people. It is only by educating the people, that the ill effects of fake candidates could be minimised.
The concept of “free election” has also started to erode with Gamini Viyangoda and Professor Chandraguptha Thenuwara, the two activists who challenged the citizenship of SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, having been threatened with death over social media. The silence in the SLPP ranks over this public threat on behalf of the party is disheartening.
Unless the main candidates prefer an untainted and decent victory, the authorities can play only a limited role in ensuring a free and fair election.