“Differences of opinion within EC a sign of democracy”- Mahinda Deshapriya | Sunday Observer

“Differences of opinion within EC a sign of democracy”- Mahinda Deshapriya

15 December, 2019

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer said he was grateful that his work has been recognized by the President and the Speaker but the credit for peaceful elections should be shared by everyone from casual workers on poll duty to voters and political parties, not just him or the Election Commission.

The following are excerpts:

Q: The Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa both have turned down your letter of resignation on the eve of a crucial general election by as early as March this year. What is your response?

A. I made an announcement in January that I will be resigning from the post of Chairman of the Election Commission if the Provincial Council election is not held before the Presidential election. I did not consult anyone before this decision was made. The district and assistant election commissioners were the first to point out how wrong that decision was. They said my statement looked as if I was trying to please the ‘gallery’.

But my intention was to create a public discourse on holding the long delayed PC election soon. The parliament had to take necessary action towards that. I also wanted to dispel the notion that the Election Commission was responsible for the PC election delay.

The then President as well as the Prime Minister agreed that the PC election should be held without delay and under the old system. The Supreme Court also ruled that it was the parliament which must be responsible for the delay in holding the PC election and not the Election Commission.

But I had to honor my word. Therefore I prepared my resignation letter on October 10 this year. But I did not act on it since there was a lot of pressure on me to stay until the Presidential election. Then as promised I wrote to the President on November 18 expressing my desire to step down as the Chairman of the Election Commission and copied it to the Speaker who is the head of the Constitutional Council.

Then there was a party secretaries meeting on December 4. The meeting was called to increase the election deposits. Some parties and groups supported the proposal while there were others against it.

A secretary of a party who spoke against increasing the deposits stood up and said we heard that the Chairman was seeking to resign, we are totally against it.

All the parties present including the two main parties, the UNP and the ruling party, endorsed it. Only the SLMC and All Ceylon Makkal Congress were absent at that meeting.

Then a letter was received from the Secretary to the President stating that because of the upcoming Parliamentary election and the Provincial Council election, the President was not in a position to consider my request to resign at this point. It also pointed out that the Election Commission did not have to take responsibility for the delay in PC elections.

That communication from the President has been submitted to the Commission.

Q: What is your personal view on the request by the Speaker and the new President to continue in your position?

A. I’m used to plaudits as well as brickbats. If I quote the Dhammapada, there is no person who was criticized every day or a person who was commended everyday. I have a humble pride for the recognition but I must say, I’m no hero.

The credit for holding free and fair elections goes to everyone in this commission as well as each and every individual including the casual workers who were on election duty. I must also thank the political parties, the voters, the observers and security forces for their contribution.

Q: Since the general elections will be a priority after the Presidential election. When do you think the delayed Provincial Council elections can be held?

A. It has been agreed that the PC elections should be held under the old system. All the parties represented in parliament including the minority parties have agreed to this proposal. Therefore we see no obstacle to hold it under the old system.

If the President thinks that he has to dissolve parliament on March 1, the day he is constitutionally allowed to dissolve parliament, and go for parliamentary elections, I assume the PC elections might be held somewhere around August or September.

Q: How can the government carry forward the half done new PC elections Act? Where should it begin?

A. For that the already prepared delimitation committee report must be passed in parliament. Our view is that the people must get a member for their electorate. Every election must have equal value. The best electoral system will be a mix of proportional representation and first past the post systems.

The ideal system should avoid overhangs plus a cut out point of 2.5%. With regards to representation of women, it is best if they are elected than nominated to the seats. My opinion is that we should go for dual ballot papers and choose the party and the member for the electorate.

To hold the election as soon as possible, the government must moot a fresh bill to facilitate holding the election under the old system or pass the private member bill presented in parliament by TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran.

Q: If the President seeks to go for early elections, with a two thirds majority in parliament, have you enough time to prepare for the election?

A. Yes, we are prepared. We are like the fire brigade. But we believe that the parliament will not be dissolved before March 1. If it does, we have to hold the election under the 2018 electoral register and deprive nearly 200,000 first time voters of their franchise right.

It is our wish that parliament will settle a few issues before the next general election. First of all the supplementary list to allow 18+ vote needs to be passed.

The section which refers to the political party registration also needs amending to empower the Commission to de-list the parties that cannot secure a particular number of votes at a given election, and also to increase the nomination deposit.

Before 1977, a political party contesting a general election had to pay Rs. 250 and the deposit for an independent group was Rs. 1000 per electoral division. It was a considerable amount then.

We must also ensure that this increase in deposit will not affect the traditional political parties who have long been in existence and are contesting for a genuine cause. This effort to increase the deposit is to discourage dummy candidates from entering the race. There needs to be an alternative arrangement to protect traditional parties.

Q: If we have the general election and the PC election together on a single day or on separate days close to each other, will it help to cut down on the massive expenditures?

A. We can hold both elections either one after another or together. But the counting will take more time as we need to give breaks in between.

There is a proposal to hold both elections on a single day. It is still under discussion. We are looking into the practical difficulties in holding both elections together. There will be issues, during counting and other processes. So there is no final decision on that.

The parties and groups who will be contesting as joint fronts might contest the Provincial Council election independently, that can create issues when holding both elections together.

The saving on election expenditures will not be as big as one would expect it to be. We need to double the staff and the printing of election material will have to be done as usual. A plus point is that the voters can finish it off in one day and the effects on the country’s economy can be minimized as a result.

Q: Will the commission look into the possibility of electronic voting during the upcoming elections this year?

A. It will not be a possibility during the parliamentary election this year. But during the Provincial Council election, a pilot project can be carried out. I think we can also consider a pilot project during the parliamentary election also. The experience will be useful when we actually plan electronic voting.

Colombo West is a good sample for a pilot project. But we need the Parliament’s approval to carry out such a pilot project.

Q: Have you done a review of the past Presidential election? What do you consider as challenging areas that need special attention?

A. Violation of media guidelines was a major issue. One state media television and two private TV networks, in particular, did not heed the guidelines at all. We need to bring in laws to change this situation or the private stations must make a public declaration that they work for a certain candidate so that the election will not be affected by their conduct.

In case of the state media station, it comes under the purview of the Public Trustee and run on public funds, therefore cannot support any political force.

The other area which we are not totally satisfied with is, fake news and hate speech posts on social media during election, which turned out to be overwhelming. We did not have volunteers to monitor social media to flag offensive material on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, etc. We only acted on the complaints. In India, they had volunteers to flag harmful material on social media and it was a success. We will pay more attention to this area in the future.

Further, we are disturbed by the issue of religious places being used for unethical campaigning. Political freedom has to be upheld but the clergy should not act in a way that violates the election law. We observed that religious leaders belonging to every faith, in different intensities, breaking the law in that respect.

On the other hand, I am grateful to the trade unions and the Sri Lanka Administrative Service officers for calling off their ongoing trade union actions and for taking firm decisions to postpone their planned actions so as not to disrupt the election process.

Q: The incident where a group of Muslim IDPs based in Puttalam came under an attack while on their way to Mannar to cast their vote was a highlight in election violations and became a major concern to the international observers who otherwise said the poll was peaceful. Will you be addressing this issue before the next election?

A. That incident would have been a bigger issue. We wanted this group of voters to leave Puttalam early to avoid any mishaps and return early. Unfortunately, they came under attack in Tantirimale while going to the polling stations. Anticipating more trouble, we secured the route for their return journey. But they opted to take a different, more populated route back, and came under another attack. No one was seriously injured, yet it left a black mark on the election.

To avoid a repetition of this unfortunate incident, we have decided to allow this group of electors to cast their vote in Puttalam at the upcoming parliamentary election.

Q: During the presidential election, different statements emanating from the Election Commission indicated that there were disagreements among its members. Have these been ironed out?

A. When you have three members at the commission, there tend to be differences in opinions. That is democracy. In most instances we have been unanimous in our decisions, but in the rare occasion of a divided opinion, we have gone by the majority decision. During the past four years such instances had been less than ten.

Now we have come to a resolution that the members of the commission will not speak out on matters that should be discussed internally.