Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya on a number of occasions had recourse to direct intervention to ensure an atmosphere conducive to holding yesterday’s local government elections in a fair and peaceful manner. In the past at all national and other polls both government and opposition politicians had in carrying out propaganda made it a practice to resort to blatant violations of the elections laws with impunity.
Because the election authorities had turned a blind eye to illegal poll practices which had eventually become the norm rather than the exception.
In the run up to yesterday’s elections too numerous instances where election laws were observed in the breach were reported from areas where contests were on. The latest instances of unlawful conduct of electioneering were reported from Galle and Matara.
The UPFA candidates in the fray in Matara last week had staged noisy demonstrations in the Matara town in a show of utter disdain for the election laws. The UNP candidates and their supporters had followed suit. However, they all know that taking out processions and staging demonstrations after handing in nominations are against the elections laws.
Meanwhile, the UPFA candidates running for the Galle Municipal Council had conducted a procession that had even featured bands providing music and seeing this unlawful procession winding its way past his office the Assistant Commissioner of Elections in Galle had reported the organisers of the procession to Galle Police. Later Police had arrested the band players. Angered by Police action a group of UPFA candidates had stormed the office of the Assistant Commissioner of Elections and abused and threatened him. On being informed of this ugly incident, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya had rushed to Galle last Wednesday to make necessary inquiries. The Commissioner had later at a conference warned the representatives of all political parties in the fray that he would not hesitate to postpone the elections to Galle and Matara MCs if further election law violations were reported to him.
Putting his foot down, the Elections Commissioner had told the political party representatives that he would postpone the elections to the two MCs unless the former gave him an undertaking to maintain peace and observe the election laws. The party representatives had thereafter promised the Elections Commissioner to extend their co-operation to local election authorities to conduct a fair and free poll. Meanwhile, Minister Dulles Alahapperuma, Chief UPFA organiser for Matara had apologised to the Electioneer Commissioner for the violation of election laws by the Matara UPFA candidates.
It is a pity that no predecessor of Mahinda Deshapriya had thought it necessary to visit the areas where election laws were being flouted and take firm action against the wrong-doers. The Elections Commissioner’s intervention last Wednesday has had the desired effect in that no untoward incidents were reported from Galle and Matara areas thereafter. Further, the Elections Commissioner has come in for praise from all sections upholding democracy for his bold step.
However, the Elections Commissioner’s warning to postpone the election to Matara MC has come in for flak from UNP’s Matara Chief Organiser Mangala Samaraweera. He has construed the Elections Commissioner’s warning as an indication of a move by the government to get the latter to postpone the election to Matara MC “as the UNP is poised to register a landslide victory in Matara.” Samaraweera had threatened at a media briefing he would take to streets with thousands of party supporters if the election to Matara MC was postponed.
Combating vote rigging
The Elections Commissioner had ordered Police to remove all election propaganda material like posters, cutouts and decorations after 10 midnights on Wednesday. Accordingly all propaganda displays had been removed by Thursday morning. Perhaps this may be the first occasion when the election law relating to display of propaganda material was observed to the letter.
The Elections Commissioner had also taken a series of other steps designed to hold free and fair elections on Saturday. For instance, he had replaced the pencil with a pen for marking the ballot. There had been reports at previous elections about instances where the marking made with the pencil on ballot papers had been erased. Now that the pen has replaced the pencil such marking deletions are no longer possible. Another innovative measure introduced by the Elections Commissioner was providing for a sticker to be pasted inside the ballot box in addition to the sticker outside by the polling agents.
Another measure was to paste on the ballot box a document giving the number of votes cast at the polling station signed by the polling agents. This was to enable the officials at the Counting Centre to tally the number of votes of a particular ballot box with the number given on the document pasted on the Ballot box.
The Elections Commissioner had also proscribed the practice of filming the voting by party leaders and candidates at polling stations mainly for media publicity. This proscription was in operation at the last elections too, but it had not been effectively enforced. If a picture of a party leader or a candidate voting at a polling station appeared in print or electronic media, the Elections Commissioner would hold the Senior Presiding officer (SPO) of the particular polling station responsible for the offence