Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has renewed calls for COVID-19 guidelines to be gazetted so that social distancing measures will be adhered to and most importantly, Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) can implement them. As each day brings large numbers of new COVID-19 patients, it is imperative that these measures are taken to ensure campaigning does not push the country into a fresh wave of infections.
Deshapriya had tough words for political parties as well, observing they were failing to adhere to social distancing measures. Following expansion of the Kandakadu cluster, some rallies have been cancelled for several days but with three more weeks to go, the country remains on edge, fearing more outbreaks.
Public officials have also been warned to refrain from making politically biased statements on social media. But there are several more loopholes that also need to be closed.
Firstly, questionable government policies that promote use of public finance for political gain are sometimes rolled out from the highest levels of government. In previous elections, Cabinet decisions were made that benefit the party in power. Top Government leaders have also been present to hand out everything from houses and motorcycles to clocks and construction material some of which were embossed with party colours and symbols. Therefore it is essential to keep ministers and top political leaders in line more than the public sector.
Secondly, to conduct a free and fair election, a tight lid has to be kept on election violations. This means that the entire rank and file of the party has to adhere to laws, which include not spreading misinformation. In previous elections, including the last presidential election use of hate speech and misinformation was rampant. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed by the leadership of all political parties. Election monitors have pointed out that this reduced the space for free discussion and exchange of information as well as severely polarised discourse limiting democratic space.
Misinformation and hate speech is also ramped up through social media, which can have serious real world consequences. Given how tenuous Sri Lanka’s racial relations are all parties need to ensure tensions are not further inflamed during campaigning. This also includes articles and news reports that are carried by overtly or covertly biased media, especially concerned TV where the spectrum is publicly owned, and therefore even private companies have the responsibility of upholding public interest. During the last election, it was estimated that just one political party spent over Rs. 1 billion on advertisements, creating strong incentives for media organisations to toe a single party line above others.
Last but not least there is the question of empowerment of the Election Commission and whether they are given the resources and legal strength to move swiftly where violations are detected and to hold the relevant people accountable. Sri Lanka also has no law to track and report campaign financing, which is a major shortcoming. Two draft bills, one titled ‘Election Campaign Finance Bill’, prepared by the Election Commission in consultation with poll observers and other stakeholders, and another, prepared by poll monitors, have made no progress since about 2017.
The disclosure of campaign contributions, both monetary and in kind, including payments by a contributor to a third party supplier, will significantly reduce avenues for election campaigns to facilitate illegal activity, principally money laundering and undue influence in the electoral process.
All these elements are also needed to protect and improve the integrity of the democratic process, and by extension confidence in the Government itself. The fight for preferential votes is likely to be fierce this year as the Government sets out to claim a two-thirds majority, making the need for safeguards even more essential.