Final Report on election related violence: Central & North Western Province

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) commenced its monitoring for the Central and North Western Provincial Council Elections on 10th January 2009. CMEV focused its monitoring on election related malpractices, irregularities and incidents of electoral violence in three phases:

1. Campaign
2. Polling Day
3. Post election violence

CMEV monitoring is founded on the belief that the electoral process is the basic mechanism for choice and change in a functioning democracy. Furthermore, political parties bear a responsibility for protecting the integrity of the electoral process through their choice of candidates and electoral practices. Individual candidates, likewise. Accordingly, the integrity of the electoral process is of pivotal importance for the legitimacy of the governance and government that it produces. Electoral violence and malpractice and discrimination in favor of any political party or section of the electorate will erode public trust and confidence.

The basic modus operandi of CMEV is the deployment of monitors in the field attached to each of the relevant Polling Divisions in a District. They report back to the CMEV Secretariat for the further corroboration of information pertaining to electoral violence and malpractice. The Secretariat releases the information to the public through the media after this further process is completed.

Overall, in the elections to the two Provincial Councils, there was a sizeable decrease in the number and nature of incidents, especially on Election Day. There were however, a number of incidents reported during the campaign that adversely affected the environment for conducting a free and fair election.

In these two elections, the highest number of complaints related to the disenfranchisement of voters on account of the lack of proper identification documents. This was also the case in the previous provincial council elections- the Eastern Provincial Council Election held on 10th May and North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council Election held on 23rd August 2008.

CMEV consistently highlighted the issue and the importance of taking steps to rectify it. The problem however has persisted. Other issues identified are the misuse of public resources and biased print and electronic media coverage – mainly by the State media. This has become a common feature of elections held in Sri Lanka and is yet another reinforcement of the argument constantly advanced by CMEV regarding the urgency of the
full implementation of the 17th Amendment.

CMEV believes that the establishment of independent commissions for the Police, the Public Service and Elections amongst others provided for by this amendment, is necessary for the protection of the integrity of the electoral process. The Commissioner of Elections acted decisively in response to malpractices being confirmed at one Polling Station. The Commissioner declared the results of No. 47 Polling Station at P/ Nayakkarchenai Tamil Vidyalya in the Puttalam Polling Station (Puttalam District) null and void and ordered a re-poll in that station. CMEV welcomed the decision of the Commissioner of Elections and reiterates that it will serve as a strong precedent and effective deterrent against future electoral irregularities and malpractice. CMEV deployed a special team to monitor the re-poll and recorded 12 incidents of election related violence on the day of the re poll.

Read the report in full here as a PDF.

Wayamba, déjà vu

The provincial election in the east has concluded with a three member UPFA majority council in place. The results released, reveal that the UPFA has managed to overturn mammoth majorities achieved by the UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe in the 2005 presidential election. In terms of total number of votes cast, its majority over all other parties is some 41,000 votes.

Throughout the campaign and on polling day, the election was marred by violence and malpractice. Accordingly, the credibility of the result has been undermined and the election will join the infamous Wayamba Provincial Election in notoriety.

During the campaign, election monitors and opposition political parties alleged widespread abuse of state resources and the issue of the TMVP bearing arms, cast its shadow over the campaign. Whilst the argument was made and continues to be made, that armed TMVP cadres did not engage in active electioneering, there is no escaping the chilling effect on the voters at large, of the relationship between the political activists of the TMVP and its armed cadres.

Vulnerable to revenge
In any event, the ordinary voter has to survive beyond the election campaign and polling day. In short, he is always vulnerable to revenge and retaliatory attacks.

Violence was practiced by other UPFA members too, with the areas of Valachchenai and Kathankudy as well as the Pottuvil Polling Division being especially badly affected by violence and malpractice.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence ( CMEV) with which this columnist is associated, called for a re-poll in these areas on the basis of reports from its monitors, as it has done in respect of LTTE violence in previous elections in the north and east. Impersonation, ballot stuffing, the chasing away of polling agents and the presence of armed groups in the vicinity of polling stations were the violations most frequently identified.

17th Amendment
The violence and malpractice reinforces the demand for the urgent implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Specifically, the reconstitution of the Constitutional Council and its nomination of members to the independent commissions, including for elections, the police and the public service. It was the civil society cry, after all, with regard to electoral violence and malpractice that served as the catalyst for the amendment.

Whilst the implementation of the 17th Amendment is no panacea, the point that needs to be emphasised is that when it was in operation, elections were not marred by such violence and malpractice, with the exclusion of violence clearly perpetrated by the LTTE.

Independent commissions provide public servants and the police with some insurance against ‘punishment transfers’ and other forms of revenge when they stand up to the worst excesses of politicians.

Bulwark against violence
Whilst the argument may be advanced that it may not have been much of a defence against TMVP violence in this election, it could well have served as a bulwark against the violence and malpractice engaged in by non-TMVP political actors.

Even with regard to TMVP violence, would it have been the case that the much heralded entry into the democratic mainstream would have been marked by assault and intimidation of police and election officials acting in the interest of a free and fair election and without fear or favour?

The eastern poll also highlights the whole issue of the circumstances of annulment of a poll in a polling station and the ordering of a re-poll by the Elections Commissioner who can exercise all the powers of the Elections Commission envisaged under the 17th Amendment, but never appointed.

Decision to re-poll
Of particular importance here, is that the decision to re-poll must be informed by the circumstances and situation outside the polling station. This is where the impersonation is prepared, where the armed gangs roam deterring people from voting or of voting for the candidate of their choice.

Furthermore, the threat, intimidation and assault of polling agents who when inside polling stations can raise the alarm and object to impersonation and attempted stuffing, takes place outside of polling stations and most often before the polling commences.

This has been the case with officials and the police too. The issue of annulment and re-polling requires serious consideration – too often has the Commissioner warned that he would do so ; and too often has he not.

It may not necessarily be smooth sailing for the regime or the clear and cogent demonstration of meaningful devolution as the instrument of peace building, now that there is a council.

Betrayal of Tamil polity
Were Pillayan not to be made chief minister, the regime risks falling victim to the charge of betrayal of the Tamil polity in the east which it insists it has been ‘liberating,’ Thoppigala on. In these circumstances, Pillayan and his cadres are bound to misbehave more grossly than they have done so far and the possibility of new alliances jeopardising the ‘liberation’ of the east, cannot be discounted.

On the other hand, were he to be made chief minister and yet denied the resources and largesse he thinks is his due, a not dissimilar outcome may be expected from his disappointment. After all, he probably believes it is payback time for him and his cadres who played so decisive a role in winning the east from the LTTE and the provincial election from the opposition? And what of the police powers he is entitled to under the 13th Amendment?

It may well turn out to be the case that in the mind of the regime, what needed to be done in the east has been done and now priorities lie elsewhere. This could mean a series of provincial council contests aimed at exhausting and demoralising the opposition until the period between November 2009 and April 2010, in which the next presidential election can be held and the next general election must be held. Pillayan will be contained and controlled in the meantime.

And the rest of us?

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives and Co-Convenor of CMEV. This article appeared in the Morning Leader on 14 May 2008.