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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The Man and the Hour: An Interview with the Elections Commissioner

Pic & striy by Maheen Senanayake.

I had tried several times to meet him. He too, in all fairness, made a valiant effort to make time for me. It had been almost a month since we set out to meet. Finally the day had come. I arrived 15 minutes early at his office on a public holiday. Shown into his room, my attention was drawn to the huge map mounted on a wall below the pictures of his predecessors. Seated at his desk, the man most called Maco – short for MethiwaranaCommasaris (Elections Commissioner in Sinhala) – Mahinda Deshapriya sat at his desk, fountain pen in hand, running through a file. He was busy. Genuinely busy. Every so often his staff would interrupt him for this and that. None were kept out. His door appeared to be open to all. Despite the continuous interruptions, he continued to work and talk with me unfazed. His ability to switch from an interruption back to our discussion maintaining the discussion thread fascinated me. Here is his story.
Q: Many say that the election hinged on your performance. How would you comment on that?

A: I see this differently. Do you think that people would be praising me if the result had been different? Do you think that the people could have separated themselves from their emotions and have said `he did all he could to conduct a free and fair election but the people have spoken?’ I am not so sure. My department worked as it did at previous elections. The only difference is we took an active interest in promoting the activities of the department. For instance we had a padayathra from the Divisional Secretary’s office to my office in Rajagiriya promoting the activities of the department. We wanted to engage the young and we wanted the people to exercise their franchise. We had to reach the people and increase awareness of the fact that we would look after the elections if only they would take the trouble to go out there and vote. Our campaign centered on several issues. We told the people that their vote was their right. We ensured that people knew that no one could trace how they voted. We also told them to go early to the polling stations. Ultimately we managed to garner the biggest voter turnout in the history of this country.

Q: Did anyone praise you before the election?

A: Well a few party leaders including from the UNP, the JVP and a few other members met me before the elections and thanked the department and me for our efforts to conduct a free and fair election. But then again, not everyone was happy.

Q: You have tried to name some those key people who assisted the department since we started this discussion. Who were they?

A: Actually there were a lot of people. This was a team effort. But some people, I have to name. I would like to thank Mr. Gamini Dissanayake, DIG Legal, DIG P B Nikahetiya, DIG LHG Cooray, Commmandant Field force HQ. and my team of Additional Elecitons Commissioners who were like pillars to me; Mr. Amaradasa, Ananda Ratnayake, and Usman Mohamed. I must also mention here the one and only female Assistant Commissioner, Ms. Chinta Dissanayake. She is the only female Asst. Commissioner since 1947.

Q: What was so significant about 1947?

A: Well in 1947 we held our first parliamentary elections but then there were two departments – the Department of Parliamentary Elections and the Department of Local Government Elections. Ultimately in 1956 there was an amalgamation of the two departments. And next year we will be celebrating the diamond jubilee of the department.

Q: Can we talk about the challenges you faced? What do you intend to do about all the violations that we experienced during that period?

A: As you know I together with my team believed that we had to do whatever that we could within the powers vested in me and the department to conduct a free and fair election. We took hitherto unimaginable decisions. For instance we took over the public parks when the then government attempted to deny the opposition public spaces for political meetings. But sadly there is no mechanism available to me to deal with the issues that we were not able to deal with during the elections.

So the consultative committee on election law reform which met yesterday is taking decisive action against election violations reported during the last presidential election held on January 8, 2015. We have to do this to ensure that the lessons learnt from the last election effectively contribute to make future elections better. Towards this end the Elections Department is giving leadership to the Consultative Committee on Election Law Reform to take decisive action against those who violated election laws during the last election. The permanent committee which is represented by five of the six recognized election monitors and representatives of the currently active political parties out of the 64 registered parties has regularly met every Friday during the last few months.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the chief violator of election laws, during the last election is also represented in the committee which is first taking action against those involved in the more serious violations including the engagement of Ministry Secretaries and state property for election work. As regards the Ministry Secretaries we are hoping to seek an amendment to the service minute as applicable to them with the support of the Ministry of Public Administration to ensure that even politically appointed personnel to such posts are governed by the Establishment Code.

Q: Can you give me a specific example of a challenging situation you had to face?

A: For instance when ITN – as you know is a state owned television channel, was being very unfair by the then opposition I wrote to the chairman. He was one person who was obstructing the conduct of free and fair elections. I instructed him to stop slinging mud at the opposition candidate in particular. He wrote back to me asking me what authority I had (to make that directive). On one hand (the reply) is reflective of the kind of person he is and his ignorance. But on the other hand, to deal with this type of activity the committee has decided to refer this matter to different authorities. For instance the Human Rights Commission and the Auditor General can do a lot in this area.

The mandate of the Human Rights Commission is to address issues dealing with fundamental rights. As the Supreme Court has ruled, ‘Franchise’ and anything relating to Franchise is also a fundamental right. So these matters may very well fall within the purview of the Human Rights Commission.

For instance it is Parliament which has control authority over the consolidated fund and the Auditor General is the individual who is entrusted with the control of its proper management. Therefore, violations, especially misappropriation of funds, could be dealt with through the Auditor General’s Department’s involvement. The Auditor General is expected to account for expenses from the consolidated fund as well as review from where and whether the right inputs to the consolidated fund has taken place.

Q: You mentioned how the police supported you in the discharge of duties of your department. Is there an individual that you can name whose contribution you would say was paramount?

A: Yes, I would say Senior DIG Gamini Navaratne’s contribution was exemplary. He did a thankless job. He was responsible for all the successes but no one ever thanked him. So I would say his service was truly remarkable. Everyone mentions my name, the IGP and several others but he remained in the background where media was concerned but was in the frontline where the job was concerned.

Another Police Officer, DIG (Legal) Gamini Dissanayake rendered great service during the last election. Then there was DIG P B Nikahetiya. These gentlemen together with my Additional Commissioners, U. Amaradasa, Ananda Ratnayake, Usman Mohamed rendered a silent service to this nation. And it is my duty to name them personally. However, I must say though I am naming a few here, everyone in the public service contributed immensely to make this election a success.

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