On November 16, Sri Lanka goes to the polls to elect its new president. I was privileged to be a part of a pre-election assessment mission mounted jointly by the Republican Party and the Democratic Party of the United States, through their independent institutes, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI).
SL has a population of 22 million of whom 16 million are registered voters. They will vote at 12,845 polling stations. Counting will be done at 1,500 counting centres. The president has to get a clear majority (50 per cent plus one vote). There is a preferential voting system where every voter can express second and third preference, which most voters rarely do. If no one gets 50 per cent in the first place, the second and third preference votes have to be counted. There is no run-off election. After all three counts, the candidate with the highest vote wins.
Every stakeholder we questioned vouched for the integrity of the Commission which became a constitutional body only in 2018, and expressed full faith in its ability to conduct a free, fair and credible election. In fact, since the 2015 election, the chief election commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, has been no less than a national icon.
The participation of youth was a common concern. There are nearly 3,00,000 first-time voters and the general opinion was that there would be a sense of apathy in them. The reasons given were their disillusionment with the performance of the government and lack of issues of their interest. The absence of campaign finance regulation was also mentioned by almost every stakeholder. The enormous abuse of money power was a common concern. Some people even mentioned foreign money playing a role.
We had an interesting conversation with the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, where he complained of being a victim of the opposition. He had complete faith in the election commission despite accusing it of delaying the provincial elections “under pressure of the government”. He made an interesting disclosure: One of the three commissioners often goes against the majority, and even goes to the court sometimes.
Referring to the Easter terror attack, he said that the government had detailed information from the government of India “including the names and telephone numbers”, but the concerned agencies did not act on it. He made it clear that it was an act of some Muslim extremists but that it cannot be attributed to Islam. When asked whether he expects any foreign interference, he replied with a wink that “hope it won’t happen again”. It may be recalled that in 2015, he had publicly attributed his defeat to Indian intelligence agencies.
We also met the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who complained of low voter interest, attributing it to the disenchantment with the political leaders and unfulfilled promises: This was surprising to hear from an incumbent PM, and reflects bitter dissensions within the ruling coalition. He also observed that the youth were not enthusiastic as they see “no big issue”. Further, he mentioned a large base of “floating voters” who can play a decisive role. He made an interesting observation that in 2015, the then President Rajapaksa had everything “including sun and the moon”, yet he lost because of these voters. According to him, “it is certain that no one will get 50 per cent votes (leading to the counting of second and third preference votes)”. Significantly, he also mentioned the possible role of foreign money.
He admitted that India had given very specific intelligence about the Easter terror attack and lamented that “we didn’t follow up”. He expressed concerns that Muslims are being vilified but didn’t anticipate much violence during the polls. Another important ruling political leader (not a Muslim), however, said that terror is being used as a weapon to harass a community, which is facing many human rights violations.
Women seem to have a very insignificant presence in the electoral scene. This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka gave the world the first elected woman president. Although women dominate the education scene with 74 per cent of the students being female (20 per cent faculty), and with 25 per cent reservation at the provincial level, at the national level, the political role for women is seen confined to women from political families.
Everyone we met — from political leaders and civil society to NGOs — complained about the spinelessness and partiality of the media, largely because most of it is owned by political parties. There is zero self-regulation. Some called it the “washing machine” of the state. The most scathing comment was made by a journalist, “SL is the worst country in the world for media prostitution!” (Does the comment ring a bell? Some consolation this).
We met a very senior Tamil leader who said that there was a general voter apathy among the Tamils. However, when Gota Rajapaksa’s candidacy was announced, the apathy disappeared. It is important to note that in 2015, it was the Tamil and Muslim vote which helped dislodge his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The leader lamented that 10 per cent of political prisoners have not yet been released, one-third of the land has not been returned and, worse, none of the 20,000 plus individuals who “disappeared” have been found. He said Tamils are “sick and tired” of voting for the “lesser of the two evils”.
The same leader also voiced strong anti-Muslim feeling among the Tamils, and feared that some violence was being planned against them, especially in the east, to prevent them from voting. He emphasised the need for the two communities to coordinate and hoped that “close to the elections they would have to work together”.
SL elections always invite great world attention. The country is liberal in inviting international observers. Most importantly, their own civil society observers from the two main NGOs — PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections) and CMEV (Centre for Monitoring Electoral Violence), have unrestricted access to the entire electoral process. They depute their observers to almost 80 per cent of the polling stations. Their monitoring and certification carries a lot of weight as well. In a meeting with them, they expressed satisfaction with the arrangements and hoped that the elections, like in 2015, would be free, fair and credible.
Finally, the camaraderie and coordination between the representatives of the NDI and IRI was a treat. One wishes to see such bonhomie between our two national parties too.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 24, 2019, under the title ‘Icon on the island’. The writer is former chief election commissioner of India. Views are strictly personal