Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sri Lanka: Polls Chief under fire

Editorial, The Island
The UNP has trained its propaganda cannon on the Elections Department. With weeks to go for the Uva PC polls, it has declared that it has no confidence in Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya. The Opposition does not expect the upcoming elections to be free and fair, it has said. Politicians’ claims are not to be taken as gospel. They are adept at making mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains depending on their political needs.But, the UNP’s concerns about the gross abuse of state resources by the government for electioneering purposes and other election malpractices need to be appreciated. For, such offences give the ruling coalition unfair advantage and prevent the Opposition from improving its competitive edge.

The UNP has also taken exception to the Polls Chief’s decision to reduce three provincial council seats in the Badulla District and adding them to the Moneragala District. In such an eventuality, candidates in the Badulla District will have to obtain a higher number of votes to get elected, the UNP, has argued, threatening legal action. One is reminded of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who had a voting district carved out by changing the existing borders to favour his party in 1812. The Boston Weekly was quick to coin the portmanteau word, ‘Gerrymander’ because the new district had the shape of a salamander. One wonders whether the redistribution of PC seats in Uva is a different version of Gerrymandering. The onus is on the Polls Chief to clear doubts in voters’ minds.

There is no panacea for the many ills our vital institutions are afflicted with. They have to be tackled separately. But, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution could have served as an effective antidote to unbridled politicisation of public institutions if it had been properly implemented; it should have been retained and improved. The Independent Commissions created under it to depoliticise the public service, the police, the judiciary, the Elections Department etc had the potential to evolve as robust institutional safeguards with the passage of time. The present dispensation cannot be forgiven for doing away with that unanimously adopted constitutional amendment.

A claim is being made internationally that Sri Lanka is drifting towards a dictatorship and the government has sought to counter it by demanding to know how such a threat could persist in a country where there are so many elections. Its argument that such claims are only part of a hostile campaign against this country may be tenable, but the fact remains that frequent elections alone won’t help prevent the debilitation of democracy. Elections have to be free and fair if people are not to lose their faith in the electoral process which is the lifeblood of democracy.

Too many elections could also have a deleterious effect on voters’ enthusiasm. The practice of staggering elections may not be of recent origin, but it needs to be done away with.

The incumbent Polls Chief seems to be no believer in an independent election commission. Asked by the media for his views on the scrapping of the 17th Amendment, he wanted to know whether there was anything that he had been able to do while that amendment was in force but could not do at present due to its absence. If he is confident that the existing laws are strong enough for him to carry out his duties and functions efficiently without giving in to political pressure, he should hold free and fair elections without leaving any room for doubts to be cast on his independence and impartiality. That is the only way he can silence his critics who are not charitable in judging him, and help prevent public disillusionment with the electoral process.
The Island