Chairman of the Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya says there is no proper planned election system in Sri Lanka.
Excerpts of the interview:
Though there is an Elections Commission and a Chairman, there no elections in the country, isn’t that so?
A: If the Chairman and the Commission could hold elections the election would have been held by now. For the Elections Commission or the Chairman to hold an election law is required. The authority to legislate rests with Parliament. No one has given us that authority. So, how can we hold an election?
You said you will resign as Chairman if the Provincial Council Elections are not held. Will you resign from Chairmanship or the membership of the Commission?
A: The PC Elections have been postponed for two years. From the first time it was postponed, I pressurised and engaged in a battle, continuously from April 2018. Finally, after the Review Committee, we thought we could hold the elections, but before that Report was out the Government was toppled. Then the Government tabled a Cabinet Paper to hold the elections according to the old method.
After the 52-day Government left, we once again discussed with the President and the Prime Minister. Although the President submitted a Cabinet Paper nothing happened.
At the discussion with the Prime Minister, he said the elections will be held at the end of August or beginning of September. Even the Speaker discussed it with party leaders. Even the politicians from the Opposition said the elections have to be held. Then every politician says that the Election Commission is not holding elections. I said that if elections are to be held, the PC Elections should be conducted prior to the Presidential Election. Nine months have passed. We waited and watched. Democracy has been defeated in this country. As it is being said that the Elections Commission is not holding elections, it is not correct for me to hold the office of Chairman, as the battle has failed.
Then from which post will you resign?
A: I have two posts, we have been appointed as three members. One of the three is the Chairman but he does not have that much authority, the Constitutional power is there, even so the Commission has to be consulted and implemented. If I quit tomorrow there will be no Chairman. Until the letter of resignation is accepted and a new Chairman is appointed, I will continue to work. But I will remain as a member. However, we believe, not today but somewhere in mid-September, it will be possible to hold the elections. The reason is because the verdict of the Court will be out on 9 September.
As the Chairman, don’t you have any other course of action to hold the PC Elections?
A: We informed the political parties. The final letter with regard to the Delimitation Commission Report was sent to the President.
Why is the Prime Minister not presenting the report of the Review Committee which met on 12 October and 20 September?
A: There is no Review Report. No review was carried out, they were appointed on 28 August, and have been called only twice.
Does that mean that even though it met, nothing was done?
A: Nothing has been done. They have asked for more time, to give them an extension, and for an extension a Bill has to be brought to Parliament.
If the Committee met twice and nothing was done on both occasions, it must be a ploy?
A: I do not believe it was a ploy. The Prime Minister is wondering whether the elections can be held according to the old method, together with other political parties. That is to say that it is the old method and enforce the current mixed proportional system. This Bill was presented by the 52-day Government, even this Government can do it, and somehow it didn’t happen. As the Chairman of the Commission I don’t want to use the word ‘ploy’ and say that the President, Prime Minister or Opposition Leader used a ploy or scam.
It is possible that the Easter Sunday attacks were also used to postpone elections due to someone’s requirements. However, my opinion is that only the Elections Commission and one or two political Parties wanted to hold elections, no one else saw the need. Those in the 1st level do not like those in the 2nd and 3rd level, playing well.
After the political upheaval of 26 October a member of your Commission went to Court, however, you haven’t been to Court, as yet, about holding the PC Elections?
A: Professor Hoole went to Court based on provisions of the Constitution, that President can’t dissolve Parliament and that dissolving Parliament and ordering that an election be held is a violation of his fundamental rights. As the Commission, there was a common opinion among us. Even political Parties filed cases. Until the verdicts in those cases are given we carried out our basic work but did not go to Court. Professor Hoole went to court as a citizen of this country. If we do go to Court what can we say about which law was violated?
Can’t you go to Court on a citizen’s right to vote being violated?
A: We said in public not to find fault with us that we are not holding elections but to file legal action against us. We said that last August. It was filed in March this year. If someone asks us to file a case we have to ask them to file it and send it to us as a fundamental rights petition. Against whom should we file action? Is it against the Parliament, the Prime Minister or the President? Then on the basis of what Act should the Elections Commission call for elections? As of now, political parties, lawyers and civil organisations have gone to Court.
As the previous Review Report is not there the new law is not valid. We want a verdict from the Supreme Court. We have told the Supreme Court that we are in agreement with their, opinion. So it is as if we have filed a case. We told anyone to file a case and we would provide relief. If it had been filed by August, there would have been a decision by now.
Can’t you go against Government tug-of-war on the Delimitation issue?
A: No, we cannot. I as Chairman cannot try to influence Parliament. If I had been a civil citizen there are more than enough actions that could be taken. I will give you an example. A group of PC members surrounded this office last September asking for elections, I took them all inside and told them that if I could I would already have held the elections. I asked them whether they have passed a Resolution at least at a Pradeshiya Sabha protesting that there is no Provincial Council. Have they come out sporting black bands on their arms, in protest? Have they engaged in a picket? Only the Elections Commission engaged in a picket, on 15 September 2017.
If you have impediments, you could propose to voters to try and make an impact on holding the election?
A: Now, there isn’t enough time to go to Court? Now the expectation is regarding the presidential election rather than the PC elections. Now, even those political parties who battled asking for PC elections are on the back foot. When there is a small election amidst a big one, main political parties are scared. The reason is if someone doesn’t receive the candidacy and crosses over to the other side they quarrel to share ministerial posts, after the election is won. It is possible that those things also have an impact. I think of those things. It is possible that it is wrong to say these things. But no political Party is keen on holding the PC elections. It would be okay if they said they don’t like it, wouldn’t it?
What you indirectly said, as a State official when you answer a political question that you have to be extra careful, isn’t that so? Is it the end, if you say something that could have an impact?
A: I don’t have any such fear. I have no problem leaving this even tomorrow. I am not leaving because the institutions that proposed my name for this Commission filled the slot of a retired Deputy Elections Commissioner. At that time people hoped that I would do the job. Now, as some say, “If there are no elections what the hell, is your Commission, for?” I have got many letters saying this. On Social websites they say, “Go home, if you have no money go and beg”.
But only we know what an effort is needed to try and hold elections. There was a huge rally in August where there was a massive crowd, wasn’t there? There were photographs of people on lamp posts and so forth. What was its title?
A: It is about eight months now, since the PC elections were delayed. There was not even a poster asking for PC elections to be held. In order to hold elections I am not asking them to surround Colombo or to stop people from stepping out. Those are not proper battles. But, where did political parties or factions try to influence this? I know that those who read this interview will say, “Yako, do not scold us, either you hold the election or go home!” This cannot be explained to the people of our country either. However much it is explained, they look through a tinted glasses!
Generally the right to hold PC Elections rests with the President. Why isn’t he showing any interest in it?
A: He can do only do two things, at this time. One is to inquire from the Supreme Court what is the valid law and go according to the old method. If not, if the new method is to be used, he can issue a gazette notification with the old Delimitation Report. So, we are waiting for him to do something.
Do you believe he will do that?
A: I am someone who lives in hope. I believe that everything happens for the good, I live according to that. If it is said that the election cannot be held, we have no hope. A person should live in this world with some hope.
Even though you have hope, it looks as if the parade would have passed as usual, this year as well?
A: Even if the PC Elections are not held the presidential election will be held.
The presidential election has to be held before 7 December. With this chaotic situation, do you think even the presidential election will be held?
A: Why don’t you have any trust? How can it be postponed! The President said the Election will be held on 7 December.
You said, that, somehow the presidential election will be held; after 15 November and before 7 December, this year. Why did the Chairman of the Elections Commission have to struggle so much to hold an election? Where is the problem?
A: Everyone is asking why the Election is not being held! Now, you, yourself ask me, the answer is in your own question. It is being said that there is no way you can be without holding that election. Even though it is being said they do not accept it. Do you know why I used the words ‘even if I break my neck’? Some say that there will be a rush.
Actually, isn’t there a problem regarding the conduct of a peaceful election?
A: There is no problem. This election will be held like a monk descending after a sermon from the dhammasanaya as told in the Sinhala lesson in the Sadhdharmarathnawaliya. There is no room for any problems. There is the Police in Sri Lanka and people don’t allow thuggery and false votes now.
Under the prevailing circumstances which election will be held first?
A: I still say that the PC Elections will be held first. If necessary it can be the parliamentary elections. If everyone in Parliament got together and with a two-thirds majority decides to dissolve Parliament, it can be done. There is no proper-planned election system in Sri Lanka.
Are you saying that all elections are uncertain?
A: Yes, uncertain!
Recently, it was stated in Media that an American hand had crept into the Elections Commission. How was it possible for such a thing to happen?
A: There is no way that an American hand can interfere in the Commission. There has been no influence. I have to explain that story to you. In 2004, when the Tsunami occurred, all documents of the Galle Office were washed away. We didn’t have even any of the old documents with us. As the Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayaka continuously wrote to the Government, non-Governmental organisations, Embassies everywhere and spoke with them requesting them to help us computerise this system. At that time, through USAID, the IFES institution came and helped to computerise the entire elections system in Sri Lanka and digitalise it.
Now, of course we are running through a programme set up by one of our own officers. After that together with USAID, we worked with organisations such as USAID, Indian Elections Commission and Triple IDM where our officials were trained. If not, would we or even the people watch and wait allowing either America, China, India or someone else until they interfere with our election system? At the time USAID came to Sri Lanka and declared open our project, all political parties in Sri Lanka were invited. There are photographs, too.
But once the International Foundation on Election Strategies or the IFES entered our Sri Lankan Election system, various factions allege that it has become a spy service of America which has expanded?
A: They can’t work with us and take away facts by spying. The reason is because our data storage or voters’ lists haven’t been given to anyone. We give schools this list for them to see and go through it but there we remove all identity card numbers. It is not foreigners who ask for our data but various locals come with all sorts of excuses asking for them. We do not give them out.
I will give you some examples. A member of your Commission Ratnajeewan Hoole is an American Citizen. At the same time, the Director of the IFES foundation recently got married to the Second Officer at the American Embassy, in this country. Within those circumstances where America is there, wherever you go, how can you say that there is no Spy Service at all in operation in this country?
A: That is a wonderful thing to say! Although Professor Hoole is an American Citizen, he is also a citizen of Sri Lanka. There is no prohibition for a person with dual citizenship to be on the Commission. If you ask him today, he says Country First! See what he says if you ask him what his Mother tongue is! He never says he is a citizen of America. However, I will not give the answer to the question you asked me.
The reason is because as the Chairman of the Elections Commission, it is not good to give an answer. Those who ask that question know the answer to it. Every country is involved in everything. Now this is global. Nevertheless we are not scared of the American Bear, the European Dog, the Dragon of China, the Polar Bear of Russia or the Octopus of India. Our Elections Commission is not scared of anybody.
Tell me finally, what is the message you have to give the voters of the country as the Chairman of the Elections Commission?
A: I have only one thing to say to the people. Politics and the Media do not belong to the politicians only. Media doesn’t belong to Media owners or journalists. All of that belongs to the people. It is the people who should handle politicians, they should also see to handling of the Media too. If people act according to what either the Media or the politicians say, it is wrong. The power is with the people. Our only slogan is ‘power to the people.’
I am asking you again whether the people can hope for an election to be held this year?
A: It is like this. Some say the PC Elections will be held either in August or September and want to know whether the presidential election can be held in November or December. Just because we celebrate New Year grandly, do we celebrate Vesak on a smaller scale? Just because we celebrate Vesak on a grand scale, do we not celebrate Poson also in the same way? No.
In that same way even if two elections come together, there will be no problem.
Similarly, any election will be peaceful.
(Source: Ceylon Today – By Anuradha Herath, Pic by Sahan Dahanayake)