The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) said that it is the responsibility of political parties to avoid giving nominations to corrupt politicians and it is also the responsibility of the voters to select respectable and educated people as their representatives.
“We will definitely blame the President and the Prime Minister if they give nominations to corrupt politicians and we are not hesitate to campaign against the people who are giving nominations to corrupt politicians,” Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, Executive Director of CaFFE, told the Daily FT.
He said that it is very important to note that the credibility of these two leaders, who pledged to stop corrupt politicians entering the next Parliament, would be shaken if corrupt people were coming from their nomination lists.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
By Shanika Sriyananda
Q: When do you commence polls monitoring?
A: We have already started our election monitoring work in all districts and have already deployed our staff. Even before the election announcement, we have been campaigning for clean elections, especially asking the political parties not to give nominations to corrupt politicians.
We are now in a very unique juncture of Sri Lankan history in which the President and the Prime Minister, who are members of the main political parties of Sri Lanka, are now on one platform. Throughout the last nine months they have been saying that corrupt politicians have to be eliminated from the next Parliament. With that promise they started campaigns and we still have a very big hope that corrupt people will not get nominations and will not get elected from their respective electorates.
Q: As a prominent polls monitoring body, what is your next move if the so-called corrupt politicians get nominated?
A: We will keep on pressuring them as the need of the hour is very clear, that we need to change the political culture in this country. If the main political parties, especially the UPFA and the UNP, led by the President and the Prime Minister of this country, give nominations to corrupt people, it will never change the political culture which they talked about during the last nine months and also what we have promoted during the last nine months.
This is also what the people of this country expect the politicians to do. It is very clear that we need something unique, very strong and very specific to change the political culture of Sri Lanka. When it is not happening, the blame should go to the people for giving nominations to corrupt politicians once again. We will definitely blame the President and the Prime Minister if they give nominations to corrupt politicians and we will not hesitate to campaign against the people who are giving nominations to corrupt politicians. It is very important to note that the credibility of these two leaders will be shaken if corrupt people are coming from their nomination lists.
Q: Do you expect more violence during the pre-election period this time?
A: We have started elections monitoring from the very beginning and 62 incidents have been reported so far. Most of them are related to the transfers done at the last minute. New appointments have been made in various Government institutions, especially in the corporations and semi-governmental institutions. Unlike earlier, people are now lodging complaints; they are very vocal and not afraid to come forward to talk against corruption.
On the other hand, we are experiencing a new trend; for the first time in Sri Lankan history, we are receiving complaints against the ruling party. Eleven out of 12 complaints of election violations, including destroying property and pressurising people, are against the SLFP. This is a new experience as earlier when there is an election it is the Opposition which was at the receiving end of election violence. But for the first time, it is now the ruling party at the receiving end of election violence. It is very clear that there will be more election violence this time.
Q: Do you have any special plans for monitoring election violence this time?
A: During the last presidential election, the voter turnover was very high. Without holding voter education programs and campaigns, a large number of people came voluntarily to polling stations to cast their votes. But, this time, people are more frustrated with the latest developments in politics during the last six to seven months.
I think there won’t be much people in the polling stations if the political parties fail to show the progress of good governance. Especially with regard to governance issues, we must not forget that the UNP is also getting more and more corruption charges these days. People are very openly vocal about these corruption charges, especially the Treasury bond issue.
We have also seen some campaigns against the Sri Lankan community in the north and the east during the last two weeks. More polarisation might expect during the elections time. This is very unfortunate situation as we have come a very long way from the very dark period. We have to decide whether we are going back to the same darker days. We have doubts whether the people will go to the polling stations in this very important election.
The main issue once again is how we can educate people and how we can ask the voters to select their representatives with some respect and integrity. I feel we are planning to ensure that there will be right people on track. We are going to launch a village-to-village campaign to encourage people to vote for clean politicians.
Q: How confident are you that CaFFE monitors are impartial in their observations?
A: Some politicians have accused us being biased during the last presidential election, but there is no way of us losing our credibility as election monitoring bodies. CaFFE, PAFFREL, CMEV and Transparency International are doing a great job in revealing the use of State properties. Here, the issue is we are not trading politicians, but we are talking about politics. We are talking about implementation. We are highlighting the fact wherever and whenever the election violations are taking place. The bottom line of a transparent election is that we going to play according to the rules. Wherever the rules are broken we are highlighting them, naming them, shaming them and we are campaigning in this regard. That has worked well for Sri Lanka and that is why the last election was so important.
Whatever the allegations coming against us or people trying to label or embarrass us, no one will believe it as everyone has been commending our contribution to voter education and voter facilitation.
More than 400,000 people were given identification documents which is mandatory to cast their votes during the last two years. No single institution, even the State institutions, were able to do so. We are not just keeping on criticising and we are not doing attractive things, but we are doing something that is needed to ensure a free and fair election.
Q: Appointing of an independent Election Commission has been dragging for years; how will it affect the election process?
A: It is very unfortunate that we have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel though we clamoured to establish an independent Elections Commission, Police Commission and Public Service Commission before the election. But it didn’t happen. With this we are having a very unclear passage. For example we saw former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa directly influencing some people and making many police transfers hours before announcing the presidential election on 8 January. The same thing has happened this time too. Over 35 Police officers including a DIG have been transferred just hours before the announcement came. The same pattern continues. If we were able to establish the independent Election Commission, the hands of the Election Commissioner will be much strengthened.
We know how the Mahiyangana Police was operating when Widanagama was accused of assaulting two UNPers. He was not taken into custody. A very senior officer had to rush all the way to Mahiyangana and address the issue and it was only then that the accused politician was taken into custody. Now he is remanded. The IGP has to take special measures to transfer more than 12 Police officers who were inefficient when it came to arresting that particular regional politician. This in itself says we need a change of political culture but not a change of the people. We need to change the system.
"Ninety-four MPs who didn’t have Ordinary Level qualifications were representing us in the last Parliament. Over 143 MPs who didn’t have Advanced Level qualification were making the decisions on the nation’s future. Is that the same thing we want to repeat in the next Parliament? No, I don’t think so. We are going to launch a village-to-village campaign to encourage people to vote for clean politicians"
Q: How do you expect voters to contribute at the August 17 election?
A: During all those elections no ordinary people engaged in violence. All violent activities were committed by well-organised regional politicians. These polls violations were well organised to show that they were having an upper hand compared to other groups. It is very unfortunate and we think the Police will take necessary action to address the violence to ensure a free and fair election on 17 August.
At the Parliamentary election it is important for the people to come forward and make sure that their rights are ensured. There is one way to do this. People have to be vocal and organised. The only way to eliminate corrupt politicians is through their votes.
They have to identify whether those politicians would deliver better to their societies and if they will really represent the people in their respective electorates. There is no point of blaming the politicians and party leaders as it depends on the voter’s wise decision. We are having a dialogue at the moment and we are hopeful that people will come forward to make the necessary changes. The last Parliament was not able to ensure the democracy of the country or ensure economic freedom of the country, it was not able to stop corruption and bribery or ensure coexistence and social integration among the community.
Ninety-four MPs who didn’t have Ordinary Level qualification were representing us in the last Parliament. Over 143 MPs who didn’t have Advanced Level qualification were making decisions on the nation’s future. Is that the same thing we want to repeat in the next Parliament? I don’t think so. People should cast their vote in a more responsible manner to change this unfortunate situation. People should elect respective and responsible people as their representatives.
Q: What is the contribution of the election monitors to ensure a free and fair election?
A: When comparing with other parts of the world, the Sri Lankan election monitoring exercise is very commanding. People are more engaged in basic freedoms like freedom of expression, association, expressing their opinion. Wherever it is disturbed, the election monitors come into action. Election monitoring in Sri Lanka is more creative than the corrupt politicians in addressing polls violations in the present political environment. We face these challenges repeatedly but we are confident that we can also face them this time to expose corrupt politicians who engage in election violence.