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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Dark clouds over election year, 2024 in Sri Lanka

By Manjula Gajanayake.

It was on 5 August2020 that an election was last held in Sri Lanka and more than three years have passed since. Data obtained from the Election Commission of Sri Lanka shows that 16,263,885 electors were eligible to exercise their franchise on 5 August 2020 and of this 31.95 per cent (31.95%) were youth.

It was not because that there was no poll due in Sri Lanka’s election calendar, that elections have not been held in the country for the past three years, but because the rulers had the preconceived notion that if any election was held it would put an end to their political futures. The next question that would come up in your mind is, what was the Election Commission doing during these three years, as one of the two foremost constitutional duties of the Election Commission is to conduct elections. The Election Commission has the power to conduct a poll on the due date but they need the support of the President of the Republic. (The powers vested in the Executive President, by the 1978 Constitution, makes him or her a political Hercules!)

Nevertheless, the Executive President has various ways and means to exceed the power vested in him. The time period between conducting the 8th Parliamentary Poll and 9th Parliamentary poll is a case in point. The 8th Parliamentary Election in Sri Lanka was conducted on 21 July 1977. Accordingly, the 9th Parliamentary Election was scheduled to be held in 1982, but the ruler at the time held a referendum instead. The referendum was held to obtain the people’s consent to extend the term of the Parliament by another five years. The two symbols assigned by the department of elections for the referendum was a lamp and a pitcher.

The electors ruled that they were content with the sitting members of Parliament by filling the pitcher with an overwhelming number of votes. As a result, the 9th Parliamentary Election was only held on 15th February 1989. The lesson learnt is that unless any member dies or is incapacitated by a terminal illness he or she could continue as a member of Parliament for a period of 11 Years 04 months and 11 days!

Such action is a part of procedural democracy, but shelving the election for over a decade by holding a referendum is outrageous. There is an extent of inherent cruelty in the act, as the people themselves were made to forego exercising their franchise. It could be only achieved by none other than an extremely crafty ruler.

The provision bestowed upon the Minister of Local Government, to extend the term of Local Authorities by one year, is another similar situation. The Minister of Local Government, exercising the powers vested in him, extended the term of the recently dissolved local authorities by one year but did not disclose the reason for granting the extension. The correct procedure would have been to announce the reason for granting the extension in the relevant Gazette Notification.

Dark Cloud

Furthermore, there is a dark cloud hovering over the Provincial Council Elections which technically has been made to disappear. The following table will rekindle the reader’s memory to the period the Provincial Council Elections have been due.

Many have doubts whether the same fate that befell the Provincial Council Elections will befall the forthcoming Presidential Poll. The poll itself may become a mere illusion. They cannot be blamed as the saying goes “Once bitten twice shy”.

Some have the notion that it is only the Opposition Parties and Election Observation Organisations that are demanding that elections be held. The reader should take note that the people hardly ever take to the streets demanding that elections be held unless there is absolute necessity. It should also be noted that the people have performed their duty by exercising their franchise freely and without fear, at each election conducted in the past. Sri Lanka has one of the highest percentage of voter turnout compared to other countries in the region.

Even though the electors harbour many a doubt, it is amazing how the rulers nonchalantly hang on to their mandate which technically has expired. For example, the rulers employed over thirty-two different ploys to postpone the last due Local Authorities Election. The Presidential Committee appointed to ‘Examine all existing election laws and regulations and make necessary recommendations for the amendment to election laws to suit current needs, established under Section 2 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act No. 17 of 1948 (Chapter 393), by the Extraordinary Gazette Notification No. 2354/06 dated 16.10.2023 may be made a cat’s paw to postpone the next Parliamentary Election, which is due in 2025 (It could be done by requesting for time to implement any reforms to the Constitution which may be proposed by the said Presidential Commission and the ensuing a fresh delimitation process). One could not put the ploy beyond our present rulers if they can find ways to circumvent legal and constitutional requirements. It may be their first ploy to postpone the election.

Thinking optimistically, the run-up to the forthcoming Presidential Poll can be as follows:
If there is no national disaster or foreign invasion, according to the Constitution the Election Commission is empowered to issue the election notice. According to Section 31.3 of the Constitution, “the poll for the election of the President shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office”. Accordingly, the election notice with respect to the Presidential Election must be made before 4 September 2024.

The date of nomination of candidates, which should be a date not less than sixteen days and not more than one month from the date of publication of the poll notice and the place of nomination after which the date the poll should be taken can be fixed..

The date fixed shall be any day other than a Full Moon Poya day or any public holiday specified in the first schedule to the Holidays Act No 29 of 1971 and if after publication of the election day it is declared as a Public Holiday such declaration in no way shall effect the validity of the previously selected day.

Ranil will not be able to exercise..
Presidential Elections have been conducted on eight (08) occasions in Sri Lanka. Incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe will not be able to exercise one privilege his predecessors, except former President D. B. Wijethunga, availed themselves of. That is the privilege of proclaiming a day of their choice to hold the election. That is because both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President D. B. Wijethunge were Succeeding Presidents. They took up office, to complete the five-year term of their predecessors. When Executive President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated the then Prime Minister D. B. Wijethunge succeeded him as President. President Ranil Wickremesinghe succeeded Executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who resigned his post in the face of a civil uprising. popularly known as the ‘Aragalaya’

One could get a better understanding of the above by referring to Article 31.3 (e) and 40.1 (a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Another fact that is of concern to us, as election monitors, is the decisions taken by the Cabinet of Ministers when they met on 5 February 2024. They are:

01. The order given to the Election Commission to conduct both the Presidential Election and the Parliamentary Election within a budget of Rupees 10 billion which was initially allocated for the forthcoming Presidential Election.

02. That the next Local Authorities Election will be held in 2025 subject to the recommendations of the Presidential Committee appointed to ‘Examine all existing election laws and regulations and make necessary recommendations for the amendment to election laws to suit current needs established under Section 2 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act No. 17 of 1948 (Chapter 393), by the Extraordinary Gazette Notification No. 2354/06 dated 16.10.2023.

The concern is that we live in a country where elections are postponed by starving them of funds and secondly that decisions pertaining to the postponing of elections should be taken collectively by Parliament and not by a body that is made up by members of one or two political parties represented in the Cabinet!

It is our duty to oppose such moves because one never knows what other undemocratic moves are being planned.C

Courtesy of Ceylon Today.

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