Sri Lanka Election-By Navin Chawla, Former Chief Election Commissioner of India was in Sri Lanka as a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group

Sri Lanka’s just concluded Parliamentary election was one that might well be described as a “text book” election. PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections), a respected electoral observer group, described it as “the most peaceful and fair election in the recent history of the country”. Coming as this did on the heels of the January 8th Presidential poll, where widespread misuse of State resources were reported, there was a sense of palpable relief this time around. If I had to select the “man of the match”, that would have to be Mahinda Deshapriya, the Elections Commissioner. With his open and engaging manner, his ready laugh, and his straightforward talk, he proved himself to be a good umpire. He came into his own recently. For during the run-up to the snap Presidential poll in January, he was unable to control the widespread misuse of government media and misuse of government vehicles, planes and helicopters. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s stranglehold on power and his authoritarian regime had rendered free and fair elections virtually impossible. However, it was in the days before the January 8 poll that Deshapriya was able to assert himself, with crucial help from the police. This ensured a narrow victory for Maithripala Sirisena, once a colleague of Rajapaksa, who had broken away to become the candidate of a combined opposition coalition.

Sirisena came to power on the plank of good governance, social justice and accountability. When he decided to call for an early Parliamentary election on 17 August, he allowed the Elections Commissioner a free hand. In turn, Deshapriya strengthened his position by inviting a large contingent of international and national observers. While I was a member of a nine- member Commonwealth Observers Group, there were also teams from the European Union and the U.S., not to mention observers from several countries including the Election Commissions of India, the Maldives and Bhutan. Civil Society played a far more important role than we see in India, their members fanning out into every province. Deshapriya actively encouraged these groups, and their constant feedback in turn propelled him to act against electoral violations. A major irony of the election campaign lay in the law itself. Unlike India and most other countries, Sri Lanka’s electoral law actually discourages campaigning. The distribution of handbills, display of placards, posters, photographs, symbols, signs, flags and banners are banned during the campaign and can be displayed only at the venue of a scheduled election meeting. Even door-to-door campaigning is astonishingly restricted to 15 supporters of a candidate. As a result Observers could have been forgiven for asking if an election was even taking place!

“The President, who is head of both state and government, will need to define the PM's powers move closely. Under Rajapaksa's presidency, the PM was a figurehead, for it was the president who presided over cabinet meetings. Constitutional changes have been promised. A plan to create a larger role for provincial governments, however, needs a two-thirds majority. So will other constitutional amendments. Rajapaksa may thwart these plans."

The obvious drawback of this arrangement was the undue reliance on advertising in both the print and electronic media, which only those parties or candidates with deep pockets could afford. Hopefully, the new Government would amend these restrictive laws; as indeed fulfill its promise to establish a full-fledged Election Commission, presently a glaring omission. The elections were contested against a back drop of contradictions. While President Sirisena threw his weight publically against his predecessor, former President Rajapaksa, yet both belong to the same party, the venerable Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Technically, they were also part of the same coalition, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Sirisena however made a public statement on the eve of polling, that even if Rajapaksa obtained a majority, he would not appoint him as the Prime Minister. Ranil Wickremesinghe has since taken over as Prime Minister. The coalition he headed fell short of the halfway mark of 113 in a 225 member parliament. At 106 seats, he was just about ahead of the Rajapaksa- led coalition which obtained 95. Even as a National Government has been set up, problems abound. The President who is both Head of State as well as Head of Government, will need to define the Prime Minister’s powers more closely. Under Rajapaksa’s Presidency, the PM was a mere figurehead, for it was the President who presided over the Cabinet’s meeting. Constitutional changes have been promised. A plan to create a larger role for provincial governments we however need a two`thirds majority. So will other constitutional amendments to help bring clarity into governance. Rajapaksa may well thwart these plans. The new government is also expected to provide a healing touch to the wounds caused by ethnic strife between the majority Sinhalese and Tamils. An accountability commission of some kind may require to be set up to investigate the previous regime’s many misdeeds. Meanwhile, the pronounced tilt against the West and India and in favour of China, is apparently being corrected. Whether the contradictions can be sorted out remains to be seen. The new government certainly has its tasks cutout for itself. Navin B. Chawla, a former Chief Election Commissioner, was recently in Sri Lanka as a member of the Commonwealth Observers Group.

Navin Chawla, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Write, Biography of Mother Teresa, was in Sri Lanka as a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group