Elections definitely not in June – Mahinda Deshapriya

Mahinda Deshapriya

In this interview, Election Commission Chairman, Mahinda Deshapriya discusses the possible date of the upcoming General Election, holding an election amidst a pandemic, and allegations against the Commission and its members.

There’s a question over when the General Election will take place. Is it a ‘tomorrow-never-comes’ situation? 

A: Yes, it looks like tomorrow will not come; but holding the election is essential. If there is no Parliament, there is no democracy. The Election Commission is going to hold the Election as soon as possible, but that does not mean immediately. Also not too far away; we hope to take the required period of time and conduct it.

The Supreme Court dismissed the petitions challenging the election date. What’s next for the Election Commission?

A: The Election Commission had to halt work from 25 March to 20 April. We only handled election-related complaints during that time. Although we did commence work from 20 April, there was no specific date set for the election. We engaged in tasks such as computerising the postal vote applications that we had received up to then. We expected the curfew in Colombo to be lifted by 27 April; it happened only in mid-May.

The Chief Justice declared that the Election Commission could continue its tasks. Had you taken on the responsibility then, wouldn’t the current situation be less complicated?

A: We did not halt any of the tasks. The only thing we refrained from doing was printing of the Gazette Notification announcing candidates’ preferential numbers. It was not possible to hold the Election on 20 June, and that’s why we had to postpone it. How could our officers arrive at their posts at 6.00 a.m. and work while wearing their masks, which have to be changed every six hours? Most people think holding an election is a minor affair, but they don’t understand the process that goes into it behind the scenes.

Various parties, especially on social media, commended the Election Commission’s decision to postpone the Election. Your comment?

A: If we held the Election on 25 April, the pandemic would have definitely spread. We couldn’t hold the Election on 20 June because the situation would not have returned to normalcy by then. We’re slowly returning to a new normalcy, as offices have started work.

The lawyer representing the Election Commission said in Court that once the Director General of Health Services issues guidelines, it would take a period of 9-11 weeks to hold the Election. Does that mean that it will take more than two months to hold the Election?

A: Quite possibly. I cannot solely confirm how many more days will be required to hold the Election. We have finished the work on postal voters, but we have not received applications from the Health Department as of yet. We extended the deadline.

What is in the guidelines issued by the Director General of Health Services regarding holding the Election?

A: There are three basic facts: Social distancing, good respiratory habits (face masks) and keeping hands clean.

What are the concerns regarding holding the Election in today’s context?

A: Adhering to the guidelines. We might take an additional day to count the votes, and it will take another day to count preference votes. We might not be able to fit 10,000-15,000 people in counting centres.

Do you think the people will have the peace of mind to engage in an election, with the fear of the coronavirus still present?  

A: We believe that more than 75 per cent of people will cast their votes.

On what basis are you saying that?

A: The people of Sri Lanka know that voting is their right. Who would like to give up their rights? Who would like to be deprived of their voice? All of that is what an election is about.

Will the required number of Government officials report for election duty? 

A: Government officials in Sri Lanka have never neglected their duties. Even when they were told they would be shot dead, people reported for duty. However, we are now facing an invisible enemy; still, we will take maximum action to prevent that.

A lawyer representing the Election Commission said that it was not necessary to hold pocket meetings. Is this still valid?

A: I think that was due to a miscommunication. The previous guidelines stated that no pocket meetings could be held, but that has changed now. That communication may not have reached him.

What is your opinion on holding pocket meetings?

A: Our opinion is that no massive political rallies are required, but without holding small meetings at village level and without raising awareness among your activists, an election cannot be held. In a village of about 1,500 people, assuming that there are at least 150 supporters of one’s party, at least two meetings would need to be held.

Can you give us an idea of when the election can be held?

A: It will not be in June, and you can quote me on that.

Will we have to wait until December? 

A: My goodness! We won’t still be in the Commission by then! You can quote me on this, too; we will have to go home on 12 November.

If so, then will it be August? 

A: I saw some people speculating it would be held in September; another person said 8 August, and yet another claimed it would be 15 August.

What we want to know is your calculation? 

A: There are two other members in the Commission. I can only declare a date after asking them both. If it were up to only the Elections Commissioner, this date would have been confirmed sooner; you would not have needed to ask me about it so much, either. Note that there are three persons involved.

Are there internal conflicts in the Election Commission?

A: No, there are no conflicts, but there are different opinions.

There are three members in the Commission. Why are their opinions so contradictory?

A: Because the three of us are three separate individuals.

That said, Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole has made many controversial statements on various occasions and serious matters. Is this evidence of an internal clash?

A: No, there are no clashes at all. Professor Hoole expressed his own views. Apart from his mentioning the work of the Election Commission, there is no such thing as internal conflicts. We are working together. Even now I am saying that our ideas are simply different.

It seems you are protecting Prof. Hoole. Would you agree?

A: That is a wonderful question! Why should I protect Hoole? But as the Chairman, I always stand by those in our team and our other officials.

If Prof Hoole objects to a decision, as the Chairman, do you hold the veto power? 

A: That is only true because there are three members. When two members disagree, the third naturally has the power of veto.

So does that mean there was no instance when it was necessary for you to exercise a decisive vote?

A: We have never used the decisive vote. We have never been of three differing viewpoints either.

But Prof. Hoole has been in the middle of several controversies recently. What do you have to say about this?

A: What I see is that Professor Hoole is a learned person who stands up for his views. If he feels what he sees is correct, he stands up on behalf of that.

It was also reported that in addition to the transport allowance of Rs 50,000, you had given him permission to use the Department’s vehicles. Did you give him such permission?

A: During an election period, we allocate transport facilities to anyone who does not have them, even members of the junior staff. He could not drive his vehicle from Jaffna, especially during this election period. He could not have come with a driver while the curfew was in force.

Then it was not I, but the Commission that made the decision to allow him to use vehicles of the Jaffna and Kilinochchi Election Offices during the period when the election is being held, so he could visit Colombo. If that is not possible, he uses vehicles from the Election offices of adjacent districts.

There are allegations that you have usurped the powers of the Commissioner General of Elections?

A: If the Commissioner General says I have seized his power, that is a different thing, but I have not done so. The Commissioner General is responsible for supervising officials. All the other powers vested with the Election Commissioner now belong to the Elections Commission.

However, certain members of the ruling faction are alleging that the Election Commission is wilfully postponing the Election. What do you have to say about this?

A: If I could have solely made the decision to postpone the Election, I could have similarly decided on a date for the Election at my own discretion.

The allegation is that you are not working independently. Your comment?

A: Who is making these allegations?

As you would have seen yourself, they were issued by various lawyers and politicians.

A: If I am not independent, then whom do they claim I am favouring? That is the question. Being independent means to not favour any particular side, and to not talk only on their behalf.

We could not hold the Election on 25 April. You might ask, why it is not possible on 20 June? During other times we work 16-18 hours when there is an election; but can officials work 16 hours while wearing masks? Can they go home at midnight and bathe at around 2.00 a.m.? Can they come back to work the following morning? Most of our staff comprise women over 40 years of age. If we try to go ahead with these conditions, everyone will fall sick.

Are you under stress now?

A: Why should I be stressed? If there was a period in life when I should have been stressed, it was during my school days. At present I am very happy.

As a senior Government official, tell me honestly, are you being influenced by political authorities, especially during these times? 

A: No one has tried to influence me. Everyone knows that even if it is attempted, I would never comply. What they say about me runs along the lines of “we do not know what this man is doing.” Persons from every political party ask me questions. Certain Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentarians address me as ‘machang’ when nobody is around. I work with everyone in the same manner.

After the Presidential Election, you declared strongly to the Media that you do not favour any Party.

A: It remains the same even now.

If so, then shouldn’t you ensure this doesn’t happen during the General Election?

A: That is true. But then, even the Media is no longer independent. Even the State Media – what appears in your paper is repeated on a certain channel, where we are painted in a negative light.

What are the steps taken by the Commission to maintain its independence? 

A: It is like this – there is a saying that we can take the horse to the river, but we cannot make it drink. Until one thinks on their own and behaves according to Media ethics, there is nothing we can do. We have told them; but they write about things without even asking us.

What was the topic of the clandestine discussion held on 6 May between you and other Assistant and Deputy Commissioners at a hotel in Ratnapura?

A: It was in no way a secret discussion. Am I prohibited from holding discussions with Assistant and Deputy Commissioners? We wanted to discuss what could happen in this Election and exchange views about it.

They asked me, “Sir, can you give us some time.” I asked them to come to Colombo. They asked whether we could meet somewhere outside of Colombo.

I also thought that since I was at home all the time, it would be best to go somewhere outside.

However, I said that a large number of people would not be able to meet under the current circumstances. To this, they said they were going to Ratnapura and to inform them if I had any free time. I simply joined them there, and we talked about the Election and related matters; the crux of the discussion was on establishing guidelines. We even talk in the office while drinking tea and eating roast bread. We have discussions with persons from other provinces and other areas too.

Did you host a workshop for a Non-Governmental Organisation?

A: Yes I did. NGOs are not germs that have entered Sri Lanka from time to time. From the time of Dayananda Dissanayake, we have worked with USAID and IFES, as well as organisations such as PAFFREL. I even have a huge album with me; you can take a look at it. Activities such as raising awareness among the people and many other tasks, like providing computer tables to every Election Office, were not carried out using Government money.

In 2007, when I was Deputy Commissioner at the main office, it was possible to obtain money for these tasks mentioned. We did receive money from the Government too. Though some of that money was allocated to organise workshops if the need arose, it proved difficult to do this with the procurement procedures in place.

So while some workshops were held with Department funds, others were done on the expense of officials, like the Ratnapura one – although that was only for food expenses. However, an attempt is being made to allege that this was a ploy by NGOs to postpone the Elections.

If that is the case, who is behind these allegations against you?

A: The basic fact is that many people want to break the public trust that lies with the Election Commission. Many would prefer not to have Election Commissions, Departments, and elections, saying the entire 225 MPs are unnecessary; thus, such viewpoints are created. It is these people who are against democracy that make unfounded allegations against most things.

If I were asked about these issues, I would have given a full explanation. Contrary to allegations, we never spoke about granting any post to any official. You continuously asked me about Hoole; but excessively criticising Hoole would only mean the overall Commission is being subject to criticism.

If you consider the allegation about the transport allowance, how was he meant to come to Colombo without transport? Under the prevailing circumstances, we believe that once the Election date is set and the run begins properly, he will come.

(Source: Ceylon Today – By Anuradha Herath)