Can there be free and fair elections in the North?

Tuesday, 28 July 2020 01:36 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Good candidates love those who implement the law. Those who cheat, hate them – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Old and new attitude to laws

The old style of election management is to use the army to scare voters from areas not friendly to the Government. Chamal Rajapaksa brought General Boniface Perera to Jaffna last week and introduced him as our next Governor. That sent chills down my spine, bringing back memories of how a Vanni Special Forces commander ethnically cleansed areas surrounding Vavuniya (S.R.H. Hoole, Democracy Undermined by Discrimination, Colombo Telegraph, 15 March, 2019.

However, some things have changed positively under our commission. The old style of election management was to do favours to all and be in their good books. An egregious example is the 2005 Presidential Election result being certified despite the victor’s agents bribing the LTTE to prohibit Tamils from voting. This Commission took the hard decision to implement the law strictly. That is why we no longer see notices and banners placed all over. Old habits linger, however.

The contrast between old and new styles of enforcing laws is exemplified by the law on carrying pictures of candidates on any vehicle. §74(1) (a) of the Parliamentary Elections Act of 1981 prohibits any flag or banner on any vehicle, except that used for the conveyance of a candidate. In §74(1) (d) it is explicitly stated that the photograph of a candidate is prohibited in any vehicle except in one used for the conveyance of a candidate. While subsection d is explicit, the old style is to say pictures of another candidate on a car carrying a particular candidate comes under the flag or banner of subsection (a) and look the other way when a vehicle carries pictures of multiple candidates. It ignores subsection (d) which allows only the picture of the candidate. Indeed, other pictures do not cover flags and banners of subsection (a). As a result, some of our Assistant or District Commissioners of Elections (ACEs/DCEs) have been impounding cars and arresting their drivers violating the law. Where the ACE/DCE likes to be nice to everyone, such offending vehicles are let off saying the pictures are like the permitted flags and banners. 

Eliminating problematic EC officials

Good candidates love those who implement the law. Those who cheat, hate them. There was now a need to be rid of anyone who would implement the law firmly. I was identified as one such person and I have written about it a lot. What I have not touched on is Johnston Fernando calling me a Tiger agent on a Swarnavahini talk show. Enough on me. Let me focus on the others.

S. Achchuthan: can neither win nor lose!

S. Achchuthan is an upright Deputy Commissioner of Elections. He was in charge of Jaffna during the 2013 elections and earned a good name. That was the problem.

At the time the islands off Jaffna were under the tight grip of a militant leader wanted for murder in India and allied to the Government. There was speculation that there might be impersonation during polls, and that as ballot boxes were transferred from the islands to Jaffna for counting, there might be stuffing or loss of boxes. Tamil officers were, out of fear, generally reluctant to go against this leader. So Achchuthan organised Sinhalese and Muslim officers from out of Jaffna to man our polling stations and handle the ballot boxes. Since they lived away, they did not mind offending that leader.

The election was successfully conducted. However, Achchuthan came under heavy criticism from people like Suresh Premachandran, for bringing in Muslims and Sinhalese. Premachandran summoned a press conference and was harshly critical of Achchuthan.

That incident was enough to mark Achchuthan as independent. As soon as he was sent to Jaffna by the Commission this time, letters came saying he and I were on a project to get M.A. Sumanthiran elected. Other complaints said he had used his office to get and sell curfew passes, and to get cement permits to be sold from his father-in-law’s shop. There was political push to get the Secretary for Public Administration who, it is said at the Commission, ordered the Additional Secretary to do. The latter however, fortunately, ruled that as Achchuthan is a Commission employee, the Commission ought to inquire against him. That inquiry established that the complainants were not traceable, he had got only one pass which was for me to leave Jaffna on duty, and his father-in-law’s shop did not deal in cement. 

Notwithstanding that, there has been a complaint to CaFFE that he is here to alter the result. This from an MP or his group that was accused of untruthfully claiming to distribute COVID-19 relief from the public as from the MP himself. Because of the close nexus between the Kachcheri where the relief comes and the MP, personnel changes have been effected. We must note that when new GAs were brought into the North, it was not without reason. In my view, based on evidence, the misuse of COVID-19 donations reaches the top of the Kachcheri.

Achchuthan was sent in as Coordinator, but now feels that as a career public servant, he cannot afford these inquiries. He refuses to work in Jaffna. So long as it is even rumoured that he acts on political leanings, no Minister will invite him to be Secretary.

M.M. Mohammed

Mohammed was then sent in for a few days of a week to take over Achchuthan’s work. He retired as Commissioner General of Elections, the highest post under the Commission. He is fluently trilingual and a lawyer. He is invaluable. So we rehired him on a term-limited contract to help us.

In 2015, there was an incident. The Jaffna election was close. As I ascertain, the count clearly established the first 4 of the 5 candidates the TNA would have elected. Suresh Premachandran was consistently the seventh. However, it was neck and neck between E. Saravanapavan, who ultimately was elected, and K. Arunthavapalan, who was edged out by about 325 votes. Arunthavapalan alleges cheating, saying he was ahead when he checked. But Saravanapavan surged ahead when votes from his Vaddukottai came in.

Section 53(8) of the aforementioned Act gives dissatisfied candidates up to 2 recounts, but that has to be prior to the Counting Officer writing down the result as in Section 53(7). They failed to exercise that. After it was all over, they went to Mohammed asking for a recount. He could do nothing to help. Subsequently they had the option to go to court. They did not exercise that either. However, since then, accusations are heard impugning Mohammed’s character. It is typical of those who lose. Suresh Premachandran called a press conference.

Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran: explosive hate speech

Many Hindus say that Wigneswaran is a disgrace to them because he wears a thick coating of holy ash and then does things that shame their religion. These acts include saying the Pope makes statements to get his picture in the papers, that Jesus Christ was hanged but people still worship him (in the context that he worships a man convicted of raping underage children and appealed for a pardon for those still in Indian jails claiming the convictions to be a mistake), etc. The November 2018 Saiva Maha Sabhai Congress in Jaffna, in the thick of the hectic campaign during Local Government Elections, takes the cake. Wigneswaran and Cheeannah Yogeswaran (Batticaloa MP) were all out to insult Christians as Emmanuel Arnold was seemingly the TNA nominee for Mayor. Among their insults, speaking one after the other, are that Arumuga Navalar knew the Bible better than the missionaries and, yes, Tamils are of the Saiva religion, and others like Christians and Muslims speaking Tamil are not Tamils but Tamil speakers.

As Mohammed visited Jaffna as Coordinator, Wigneswaran called a press conference on 25 July and asserted that a biased official is being brought to Jaffna, and asked why the Commission could not bring in a senior Tamil. It reopened ugly wounds from 1885, when Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan insisted against Muslim protestations that Muslims are Tamils by ethnicity, Islamic by religion, and are the progeny of unions between Arabs and low caste Tamils (Rifat Halim, Sri Lankan Muslims Are Low Caste Tamil Hindu Converts Not Arab Descendants, Colombo Telegraph, Sept. 2, 2017.

Anxiety among those of us in charge of elections reached a crescendo on 25 July 2020. It revealed an organised attempt to humiliate and have removed from office those who apply election laws strictly.

Hate speech

As a retired Supreme Court Judge, Wigneswaran is expected to know the law. Mohammed does not need to be Tamil to be employed by the EC. He should also know election laws as a politician and be aware of the rules for recounts. He was, in my view, exposing his now well-established communalism. He cannot be heard to speak like those who instigated the 1983 riots. He should not forget that Mohammed was in charge when he won his handsome victory to be Chief Minister. His accusations are simple hate speech and play on Tamil prejudices against Muslims at election time. Shame on him!

Women and our responsibility to minorities

As minorities Tamils need devolution to have a greater say in our own affairs. We must reject prejudice and be an example. We must live what we preach.

Devolving power from the centre to the periphery is now established wisdom among those who do not want to control the lives of people around them. We must realise that just as minorities have the right to geographical distribution of power, women – 52% of us with only 6% of MPs in parliament – have the same case for powers to be distributed from men to them.

On 5 August, we have a vote for a party, and then 3 votes for candidates of that party. Give one of your three votes to a woman and rectify this historic injustice to women. Let our communalists putting down minorities, power-hungry men who want to tell women what to wear and say, control-freaks, and all anti-democracy forces be taught a lesson on 5 August. Sinhalese and Tamils, men and women, must join us in this. The opportunity to have more women in Parliament will not come again for another 5 years.

The writer is a member of the Elections Commission. The opinion expressed is his own and not necessarily reflective of the Commission.

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