The standards of party politics and especially canvassing for preferential votes during the campaign for the Western and Southern Provincial Council elections appear to have reached their worst levels since the new Constitution was adopted in 1978.
Election monitors and media reports say some candidates involved in inner party rivalry for preferential votes are openly and blatantly violating election laws by giving inducements or gift-wrapped bribes to voters. One of the latest reports was of a candidate who gave large bottles of papaya shampoo to some voters. Apparently unable to properly read or figure out the labels, some of them consumed it thinking it was a fruit drink. They fell sick and family members had to give first aid in the form of coconut milk to help the victims to vomit out the shampoo. Other cases involve candidates giving mobile phones, roofing sheets and poll hampers with money obtained illegally or from business and underground sources who later get back ten times as much as they gave to the candidates. The tragedy is that this whole political circus takes place by plundering public money. Eventually, a small elite of the rich get richer while the vast majority of the poor get poorer – creating the monstrosity of a thin person with a huge belly and a fatal heart attack on the way.
The election monitoring group, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) has complained that several candidates vying for election to the Southern Provincial Council had taken Rs. 1 million each off of the funds of the Southern Development Authority and distributed Rs. 5,000 each among the voters. Although this Rs. 1 million had been withdrawn just before the dissolving of the council, it was a clear misuse of funds and also an act of bribery, PAFFREL said.
Meanwhile, Opposition Parties have complained to the Elections Commissioner General Mahinda Deshapriya that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is using national events as a platform to canvass for the elections to the Western and Southern Provincial Councils. Mr. Dehsapriya in response has said if the President uses a national event exclusively for election propaganda, then he could intervene and register his protest. But the Commissioner General says he cannot intervene in a case where the President, as the Head of State, launches development projects, opens a building or a railway line in a province where elections are being held. Mr. Deshapriya says if opposition political parties are keen to prevent the Head of State from participating at national events during election campaign time, they must then take a policy decision to introduce amendments to the electoral law with the concurrence of the Government.
This situation arose after 1978 with the new Constitution and the setting up of the Executive Presidency. Before that the Governor General or the ceremonial President did not get directly involved in party politics or election campaigns. After 1978, Presidents J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunga, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and President Rajapaksa while being Heads of State have also been leaders of their parties and have therefore taken part in election campaigns. As for what is a national event or what is party propaganda, is a thin blue or green line on which a hundred people would have a hundred different opinions. Only a constitutional amendment could stop this and that is why most independent political analysts say the reintroduction of the 17th Amendment would be the most effective solution to the multitude of crises we are facing. If this is done we would have an independent Elections Commission, an independent Police Commission, an independent Judicial Services Commission and an independent Public Services Commission. If these Commissions act effectively and courageously, it would be a major step for Sri Lanka toward the restoration of the Rule of Law. Then and only then could we have a free and fair election where the people would have the freedom to make an informed choice.