Sri Lanka Brief
News2013 Northern Provincial Council Elections did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.- Commonwealth mission

2013 Northern Provincial Council Elections did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.- Commonwealth mission

Northern Provincial Council Elections
Voters in Jaffna ; Photo – The Republic Square

Conclusions and Recommendations

 The 21 September 2013 elections were landmark elections, the first Northern Provincial Council Elections held since the end of the civil conflict in May 2009, and since the Provincial Council system was established. We are conscious that the Northern Province is emerging from nearly three decades of civil conflict which claimed many thousands of lives and resulted in widespread damage to infrastructure, livelihoods and displacement of the population.

We commend the Commissioner of Elections and his staff across the Northern Province, who approached their duties with diligence and dedication. The administrative arrangements for voting and counting in this election were impressive. Election Day itself was largely peaceful, with only isolated incidents reported.
These positive achievements were undermined by a compromised pre-election environment. Key concerns included the heavy presence and influence of the military, including persistent reports of overt military support for particular candidates, reported cases of the military actually campaigning for selected candidates, and military involvement in the intimidation of the electorate, party supporters and candidates. The role of the military in the electoral campaign was consistently described to the Mission as a significant obstacle to a credible electoral process.
Furthermore, the fundamental freedoms of association and assembly were constrained in the pre-electoral period. Opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as voters at large, faced instances of intimidation and harassment, and the freedom to hold campaign meetings and openly interact with the electorate was restricted.
There were numerous reported cases of misuse of public resources, ranging from misuse of government personnel, vehicles and facilities for partisan political activity to inducements offered to public officials and voters, including conditional job offers, conditional higher salaries and the cancellation of loans. The media environment appeared constricted.
We commend the voters for their commitment to the democratic process. There was a large voter turn-out of 67.52%.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 2010, undermined the constitutional and legal framework for a credible and competitive election. In particular, the provision for an independent Electoral Commission has been negated.
Furthermore, there was inadequate enforcement of existing laws that provide for a level playing field for all candidates, such as the prohibition of use of state resources in electoral campaigns.
Our mandate requires us to observe and consider all aspects of the electoral process and assess compliance with the standards for democratic elections to which Sri Lanka has committed itself, with reference to national election-related legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth and other international commitments. Key benchmarks for democratic elections include provision of a reasonable legal framework; a conducive environment for an election (including the human rights situation and impartiality of state institutions); the right to participate (including freedom of association, a competitive poll, women and youth participation); universal suffrage; freedom of expression (including reasonable access to media); freedom of movement and assembly (including general campaign freedoms); transparency; rights to effective legal remedy and finally whether voters are free to express their will.
In this context, while voters on Election Day were able to express their will, serious and fundamental shortcomings in the equally important pre-election period meant that in our overall assessment, the 21 September 2013 Northern Provincial Council Elections did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.
Our mandate offers the possibility of making recommendations for the future strengthening of the electoral framework. It is in this positive spirit that we offer the following recommendations for consideration by the relevant stakeholders.
The Electoral Framework and Election Administration:

1. An Independent Electoral Commission as foreshadowed in the 17th Amendment should be established as a matter of urgency.

2. A concerted effort on the part of the Department of Elections is required to reduce to an absolute minimum the number of people that have no form of identification. An official partnership with organisation such as PAFFREL and CaFFE could be considered.

3. Formal recognition of the role and importance of domestic observers would support the transparency of the electoral process.
Election Campaign and Media Coverage:

1. The involvement and influence of the military in an election campaign is serious and disturbing. This involvement must be investigated and strictly avoided in the future.

2. Violent assaults on impartial domestic observers should be investigated and addressed. Awareness must be spread on the vital role that domestic observers play as independent safeguards of the democratic process.

3. The provisions regulating permissible activities during an election campaign should be reviewed.

4. Existing laws to prevent the widespread abuse of state resources during campaigns must be enforced. This can be achieved by establishing and empowering an independent Electoral Commission as soon as possible as outlined in Chapter 3.

5. To deter hate speech, existing laws need to be enforced and, where necessary, may be strengthened.

6. Political Parties must address acts of violence carried out by their supporters and actively foster a culture of tolerance.

7. Steps should be taken to develop a media culture conducive to independent and balanced reporting. All necessary measures should be put in place to protect the safety of media personnel.

Voting, Counting and Results:
1. The secrecy of the ballot is paramount to any credible electoral process and must be maintained at all times. SPOs should be advised to this effect. If security is of concern, thorough security checks can be conducted before voters enter polling stations.
2. Specific guidelines should be issued to facilitate the voting of pregnant women, the elderly and the disabled when the queues are long. Those in need of assistance to cast their ballot should have the secrecy of their ballot respected.
3. In instances where distances between polling stations and voters’ homes are far, special Election Day public transport for voter movement should be considered.
4. Clear instructions should be provided by the Department of Elections regarding the placement of party stickers.
5. Consideration should be given to the process of counting with a view to counting being conducted at polling stations once polls have closed. This is the practice in several Commonwealth countries.
6. The working conditions at Counting Centres must be improved, with at least appropriate ventilation provided for.
7. Domestic Observers should be given access to the counting stage. Without being able to witness the count, their observation of the electoral process is fundamentally incomplete. As mentioned in Chapter 3, the law should back domestic observers.
8. Voter education, especially with regards to marking ballot papers must be intensified to reduce the number of rejected ballots in future. The use of media in this regard could prove to be extremely effective, as seen in other Commonwealth countries.
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