As the end of the nomination period nears, all eyes are now turning to how free and fair the upcoming elections will be. The Police and the Elections Commissioner will have the toughest task in this, with many predicting the upcoming vote to be a highly-contested and violent one.
Things are moving on the surface already. All posters, banners and cut-outs targeting the 17 August general election will be removed from this week. All 42 Police divisions across the country have been directed by Police Headquarters to remove these cut-outs and posters and that the Police will deploy some 1,900 labourers for this purpose.
United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has appealed to candidates to refrain from using his image on posters and directed those already up to be removed. Several other politicians are also likely to follow suite.
Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has announced that Elections Complaints Centres have been established to receive complaints of violation of election laws. Undoubtedly this will be a hotly-discussed topic in the coming weeks. These Elections Complaints Centres have been established at the District Secretariat level. In addition, information on the violation of elections laws can directly be submitted to the Police stations in the respective areas.
Under provisions provided in the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act any registered elector, who reasonably fears that due to conditions prevailing in the area within which his polling station is situated, that he is unable to cast his vote at such polling station, may make an application to the Commissioner of Elections, requesting that he may be allowed to cast his vote at another polling station. All this is to make sure every voter can exercise his franchise.
But the start of the vote war has been inauspicious. A UNP supporter, an associate of UNP MP Thalatha Atukorale, and father of two, was murdered in Ratnapura while separate incidents of assaults and property damage were reported in Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Mahiyanganaya and Weligama just ahead of nomination announcements.
Preliminary reports from the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) indicate that UNP MPs and their supporters were the target of every reported incident with members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) being implicated in all instances with the exception of the Kurunegala attack.
Last January’s presidential polls were hailed as being one of the most peaceful elections in recent times resulting in Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya being heaped with plaudits for his decisive conduct in the build-up to elections and since. Yet by the end of the campaign period a total of 543 incidents of election violence and malpractice were reported, including one murder, three attempted murders, 64 assaults and 11 cases of arson; peaceful perhaps by Sri Lankan standards but certainly not a clean break from bad habits.
Other violations such as abuse of State property, especially public media, was so rampant it has prompted reports Government media will be monitored by the Elections Commissioner to make sure they toe the line during an intense campaign. Many others have called for similar regulations for private media and warn picking candidates would be extremely difficult in the current set up.
When nominations close on Monday, the stage is set for a new phase of Sri Lankan politics – but it is likely they will be fought with old habits.