An election has been called. At times like this, people with political fever are said to be stressed. Others do not contract the disease. But things are different this time. A certain amount of election anxiety is brewing among the children who do not have the right to vote. It is not a question of who will win or lose, but of whether or not the government will have a vote.
One may think that once a vote is announced, it cannot be stopped. But now what is happening in this country is not what you think, but what no one can even dream of. The government is trying to postpone the election. The Election Commission is trying to hold the polls. Things have gone so far that sometimes it is thought that the biggest competition is not between the parties seeking votes but between the government and the Election Commission. The residual voter is not waiting to see whether Pohottuwa or who will win the vote and take over the power of the local bodies, but whether the Election Commission will be able to hold the vote or not is what all want to see.
The government is launching one strategy after another to prevent the vote from taking place. Meanwhile, strange arguments are being advanced that not been heard in generations. One of those peculiar arguments was President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attempt to postpone the election last week by claiming that the Election Commission is divided. There is no mention of postponing the election simply because the Election Commission is divided in any other democratic country in the world. As a result, it is fair to say that the fraudulent argument has been developed in order to target the Sri Lankan local council elections.
Sri Lanka’s Election Commission consists of five members. One is the chairman and the other four are members. The current Chairman of the Election Commission is attorney at law Nimal Punchihewa. Other members are S.B. Diwaratne, M.M. Mohammad, K.P.P. Pathirana, Mrs. P.S.M.Charles. Even though there is a Chairman, the entire election process takes place according to the agreement of this five-member committee.
Even the appropriate gazette announcements should be signed by all members in addition to the chairman. The government tried to “instrumentalise” this foundation of shared understanding of the commission. In other words it is to create a false belief and spread that to emphasise that the commission is not of one mind regarding the election. Government tries to promote this belief, and claim that the election cannot be held fairly owing to the division of the commission, thus find a reason of postponing the election.
Although the government had been planning to postpone the election based on the collective nature of the commission for some time, the cat jumped out of the bag when the President called the Election Commission recently. The President has asked whether the Commission holds the same opinion on the vote.
This is not a question that should be asked. It is not ethical to ask such a question by Ranil Wickramasinghe, who is an expert on the parliamentary system and the constitution, as well as a lawyer with more than five decades of experience. It is not appropriate for the President to ask like that knowing that all the other announcements and gazettes have been signed by all the members of the commission and nominations were called for the election.
The commission chairman said that the commission is of the same opinion regarding the election, but the next day it was published in all the newspapers that “the commission is not of the same opinion regarding the vote”. Even the common people who read it understood that this was news that was written from one place and distributed to all the media.
The reports that there is a split in the decision to hold the local government elections are false, as the chairman of the National Election Commission publicly stated in front of the media for the second time on the 11th, that the news that circulating the “commission is divided” is untrue.
However, another significant issue remains. If the commission is split, can the vote be stopped? According to the experience we have gained in 2019 and 2020, nothing in the statutes was possible to stop the election.
This writer says this because recalling the Election Commission actually was split into two during the presidential election held in 2019, but this also started making news through the media and different announcements issued by parties concern.
Mahinda Deshapriya, the country’s most popular public servant, was the chairman of the Election Commission at that time. During the 2015 presidential election, he was able to win everyone’s admiration because of his impartiality in removing illegal banners and cutouts and publicly saying that violators of election rules should be shot in the head instead of below the knees. Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole, who was a member of the Election Commission chaired by Mahinda Deshapriya, constantly clashed with the general conclusions of the commission and the chairman at that time.
In the 2019 presidential election, one of the most discussed topics was the withdrawal of the US citizenship of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was acknowledged as a very difficult task to do and it was stated that it would take a long time to renounce US citizenship. But the situation heated up when Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole stated that his citizenship withdrawal was not formally checked at the time of nomination. Hoole said that the Chairman of the Election Commission was not interested in it.
Later, lawyer Nagananda Kodithuvakku filed writ of Mandamus petition in the Supreme Court, claiming that the way the then Chairman of the Election Commission acted in the presidential election made it impossible to conduct a free and fair election. Ratnajeevan Hoole, who testified to the court through an affidavit when the petition was heard, said that Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who was a candidate in the last presidential election, never submitted the certificates to the Election Commission his removal of American citizenship, which is an example of the continuous struggle between him and the Election Commission.
The 2020 general election can be seen as an occasion where the crisis between Professor Hoole and the Electoral Commission erupted. The commission had to postpone the general election that was scheduled to be held on April 25th of that year due to the Corona epidemic situation.
At that time, Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole said that the election should not be held until safety is confirmed on a scientific basis, giving priority to public safety. He also arranged to inform the Chairman of the Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, in writing. But even then, the commission was in the position that the election should be held soon. It was at that time that National Freedom Party leader Wimal Weerawansa proposed to heat a pan of ballot papers and use them to cast vote.
In the end, it was decided to hold the election in August that year after consulting the views of the health departments and the army, and Ratnajeevan Hoole did not agree to it at that time either. His opinion was that a more scientific method should be used to confirm safety from Corona.
Another clash between Ratnajeevan Hoole and the Election Commission was reported at the end of May 2020. At that time, it was reported that the Election Commission handed over the ballot papers to the government press for printing. Professor Hoolee said at the time that the commission had not informed him about the printing of ballot papers. He also said that the date of the election should be fixed to print the ballot papers and the printing of the ballot papers should be stopped until the case before the Supreme Court regarding the general election is over.
The writer has mentioned some of the critical divisions and conflicts of opinion between the Chairman of the Election Commission and its member Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole. In addition, the Commission and Professor Hoole clashed many times. Professor Hoole, who attended a press conference in the first week of November 2019, called Sri Lanka’s electoral system outdated. Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, who was at the other end of the same table, denied that statement.
Professor Hoole had once told the BBC Sinhala website that he had told Mahinda Deshapriya about the citizenship of presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and instead of looking into it, he had informed the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa party that he was the “only issue” and put his life in danger.
When asked about these allegations, the chairman of the commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, said that he would not respond to the accusations leveled by Professor Hoole. It is suspected that at that time, Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole and Mahinda Deshapriya had a grudge similar to that of ‘Mother in law and Daughter in law ‘. The two were always on opposite side. If the members of the commission had not agreed to hold the vote, it would still be President Maithripala Sirisena in office.
This implies the extent of the rift between Mahinda Deshapriya and Professor Hoole. No matter how bad they were, not a single election was delayed during that era. Although the members are divided, they do not hinder the conduct of the election. These past examples are proofs. Now this government has no other way to postpone the election. That is why the government is trying to split the commission to postpone the vote.