As clouds of uncertainty engulf the Local Government Elections, with claims that the hidden hands of powerful State actors are at play, the Election Commission (EC) last week remained steadfast that judicial recourse would be sought at the earliest sign of a delay.
Earlier last week, the Department of Government Printing announced that the Election Commission had not released the required funds to print ballot papers. Later, the Head of the Department also claimed that the staff did not feel comfortable continuing work without Police protection.
“We are only the press. Everything else must be provided to us by the Election Commission. It must provide us with all the facilities. The estimated cost for us to print all the ballot papers is Rs. 400 million. I requested Rs. 200 million initially, but we have only received Rs. 40 million,” Government Printer Gangani Liyanage said at a media conference.
EC cannot postpone elections: Comm. Gen. of Elections
Soon after, certain reports confused many as to whether a decision had been taken to postpone the postal vote. However, the Election Commission clarified matters to be otherwise.
“What has been postponed is the date on which postal voting ballot papers are to be handed over to the postal service. It was postponed because the Department of Government Printing has not provided us with the ballot papers for the postal vote. The Election Commission cannot postpone the entire election under any circumstances. That would have to be a decision of the courts,” Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake told The Sunday Morning.
He moreover rejected the Government Printer’s claim that funding was to be provided by the Election Commission.
“It is the responsibility of the Finance Ministry and the Government to ensure that funds are released for the elections. An allocation has already been made in this year’s Budget by Parliament,” he explained, charging that the Government Printer was misleading the public and that they must adhere to their role in line with their duties.
“She [Liyanage] is not a baby. She has been doing this for many years. She has never brought up any issue like this before and is only talking about it during this election. She is playing a part in some game. Conducting elections is not only the responsibility of the Election Commission; it is also the responsibility of the Government and Government departments such as the Police and the Department of Government Printing must carry out their responsibilities as well,” Ratnayake charged.
Printing first, funds later?
Ratnayake explained that the process followed had always been that the Government Printer first undertook the printing and then was provided with funds.
“They are yet to inform us of a date on which they will give us the ballot papers for postal voting,” he said.
Thus far, the Election Commission has received only Rs. 165 million out of a total of Rs. 770 million requested to be provided by the end of February, while the Police has received Rs. 25 million.
“Our duty is to conduct the elections. The finances for the elections must be provided by the Treasury. The necessary amounts are calculated and sent to the Treasury. The Treasury in turn provides the funds to the various departments to enable the holding of this election, including to the Police Department and the Department of Government Printing,” Ratnayake said.
Legal action if finances not released by Govt.
Ratnayake warned that should the Government fail to release the finances, then either the Election Commission, the Opposition, and/or other private citizens would go before courts.
Election Commission Chairman Nimal Punchihewa said that a decision would be taken on the fate of the postal vote this week if the ballot papers were not provided on time.
“If we receive the ballot papers in the next few days, then we will be able to hold the postal voting on the scheduled date. If we don’t receive it within the next few days, then we will have to make a decision next Monday or Tuesday on changing the date of the postal voting. The Department of Government Printing is given the finances directly from the Treasury, not only for the postal vote but for the ballot papers of the main election as well,” he explained.
Decision this week
He said the main election schedule depended on the funding being provided in a timely manner.
“If the Government Printer gives us the ballot papers and other requirements on time and the Treasury provides us with the necessary funding for the Election Commission as well as for other district level activities, then we will be able to hold the elections on time by 9 March. If the money is not provided, then we will not be able to do so.”
He noted that the commission was prepared to find a solution through the Judiciary if the elections were to be delayed.
“If a situation arises where it appears that the elections are going to be delayed, we will have to take the matter before the Judiciary because we have an undertaking. We can bring this about through a motion. Our lawyers will decide on how to proceed regarding the court matters. The courts have the power to compel the Treasury to release funds or whatever they feel is necessary, taking into consideration the circumstances,” Punchihewa asserted.
Threat to democracy
Meanwhile, Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies Executive Director Manjula Gajanayake said that it would take another 10 years before the election could be held if it was postponed at this moment.
“According to the law, a fresh date for an election can only be called 21 days after 9 March. The problem is that once this election is postponed, in reality it will take another decade for it to be held. What we heard from the Government side following the discussions with the Election Commission is that the Finance Ministry has said that it can only provide money once the IMF loan is received. It is a real threat to democracy if we have to wait for a third party to fund an election.”
He said that the Government Printer and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) had violated election laws and action would be taken against them. “Firstly, we have to analyse and identify who attempted to postpone the election. The Government Printer and the IGP violated election laws. Provision 104GG of the Constitution says that it is their responsibility to support the Election Commission to conduct any form of election. Therefore, we are trying to take legal action against these officers because this sets a bad precedent.”
Gajanayake then called on political parties to take up their responsibilities and fight this issue in the courts. “Secondly, we are trying to hold discussions with the EC to make sure they set a date for the election instead of waiting on the Government. Political parties should be taking action against this attempt to postpone the election. They must file cases in the Judiciary – it is their duty.”
By Skandha Gunasekara/TM