Election violence seems to reach unprecedented levels in the current presidential election campaign. Last Saturday, political goons attacked a UNP meeting in Haputale minutes before the arrival of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP Chief Organizer Senarath Jayasinghe sustained injuries in the attack. Last week political thugs in jeeps destroyed the election platform of common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena in Wanduramba,Galle. When the police arrested three suspects in connection with the attack, it was reported that Deputy Minister Nishantha Muthuhettigama stormed the police station to snatch the three suspects away. But the brave police had given chase and re-arrested the three suspects who were later produced before court and remanded.
The situation seems to worsen with the establishment turning a blind eye. The Elections Commissioner should now exercise his authority as certain powers are vested in him to curb polls violence with the help of the police. With just over two weeks to go for polls, the polls chief should compare peaceful places with violent places and identify specific risk factors to strengthen security in those places on polling day. Polls violence is not different to general violence when it comes to politics. What the polls chief should do is to interact with the Inspector General of Police to tighten security in violence affected areas.
The Elections Department should have a new technique to help identify which polling places are most prone to thuggery and intimidation which would result in violence. Using the department’s knowledge of sensitive areas, election officials could develop strategies to efficiently allocate police and armed forces to polling stations that are more susceptible to fraud and violence. The polls chief has powers to accomplish that task and he should exercise those powers if the Elections Department is truly keen to ensure a free and fair election.
It is a known fact that at certain vulnerable polling stations throughout the country, thugs are hired by campaigners to intimidate, harass, threaten and also to bribe voters to prevent them from casting their ballots. Non-registered voters should not be allowed to congregate close to polling stations and frustrate legitimate voters waiting to cast their votes. Such activities result in violence and sometimes death. The people should feel free to leave homes to cast their votes. When gangs are seen outside polling stations voters feel threatened. Election management becomes important to sway voter confidence about the fairness of the electoral process.
The demand for police personnel would greatly exceed the supply and the polls chief could seek more personnel from the Civil Defence Force that comes under the Police Department. Elections officials who had conducted several elections in the past should compile a list of all polling places and rank them by level of vulnerability relative to violence or suspicious activity. Upon such criteria, each polling station could be classified as normal, sensitive, or hypersensitive. The strength of the allocation of police personnel could be deployed accordingly to ensure that tight security is placed in sensitive and hypersensitive polling stations.
Election Monitors and Polls Observers who roam the districts at present to gather information on violence and other activities should submit reports on areas that could be open to intimidation, threats and violence to the Elections Commissioner. They should re-visit the sensitive or hypersensitive areas and host public discussions to gather more facts about the local problems in those areas. A free and fair election is the need of the hour. It’s not too late for the Elections Commissioner to trek in that direction. Mahinda Deshapriya is the guardian of voters in this country.
Editorial, Ceylon Today