Sri Lanka is in a position to teach the world how to stand up to dictatorial regimes and overturn such regimes through peaceful elections, member of the Independent Elections Commission, Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole, said.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer, he said the Commission is currently occupied with the task of absorbing the former Election Department staff, preparing to conduct the upcoming local government elections, where for the first time the 30% quota for women will be accommodated.
Q: The Independent Election Commission was a long felt need in Sri Lanka. Can the new body live up to those public expectations?
A: I am proud to be working with a team that ushered in the changes of 8 January 2015. If not for them, we will not have the freedoms we now have. The people have triumphed.
In 2011, I wrote of the election malpractices in Kayts, including police jeeps driving around without number plates. For that, I was served with a criminal charge-sheet and I fled the island. Ironically, today I am serving the Election Commission, ensuring that what happened in Kayts does not happen again!
Today, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution simply transfers the powers of the Election Commissioner to the Independent Election Commission– its Chairman, Mahinda Deshapriya and its, two members (Nalin Abeysekera PC and I), together with the powers of the Elections Department. There are three of us where there was only one before. And we are independent. What the Department magnificently did, the Commission can therefore do better.
A: The three of us famously get along. That goes a long way towards making a good Commission.
The Commission worked steadily to attach the Elections Department Staff in the Commission and to preserve their pension rights.
We obtained financial approval for the new positions in the Commission we proposed. Until then, the defunct Department staff members were technically without jobs but we continued to pay them! Practically everyone in the Department has agreed to join the Commission.
There are some glitches in the text of the amendment but we are working closely with the government to rectify them.
For me, to be effective, the main practical issue is coming to speed on all laws and enactments. Commissioner Deshapriya’s experience helps as I learn.
Commissioner Abeysekera as the Legal Draftsman for 15 years has the knowledge of laws he drafted, at his fingertips.
As lawsuits pile up, naming me with the others, as a respondent, the practice is to sign a proxy and let some lawyer handle the matter on my behalf. But the ethical thing is to study whether there is any merit to the complaint and instruct such lawyer on the position he/she ought to take on my behalf.
The government must be responsive to those who are ruled. If a petitioner is aggrieved, we must not routinely oppose his prayers for relief as if we are always right. Timely elections are a democratic right, but Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa have had expired local bodies for much longer and nobody cared.
Q: Will this body play a key role in the new electoral reforms process? If so how?
A: That really is a function of Parliament. We will be asked to make input in that process. At that time, we can say some helpful things:
What is the best option? First Past-the-Post (FPP) or Proportional Representation (PR)? The discussions favour FPP with a mix, to ensure that minorities (whether by opinion or ethnicity) also get a chance, when they live distributed all over the country and unable to get elected under the FPP.
In what proportion are FPP and PR to be mixed? Some like 70% FPP and 30% PR while others like a 60-40 combo. The approved local government amendments provide for 1/3 for PR.
As for election finances, contesting under PR in a large district and reaching electors is expensive. Only the rich can afford it. Under the FPP system, one focuses on the small electorate where one lives, knowing the voters well and campaigning is affordable. This is why all kinds of criminals and insurgents are in Parliament under the present PR system. It is troubling that even if 10% of the seats based on PR, criminals will still have an edge. How do we retain the advantages of PR while switching to the FPP?
Women are under-represented in parliament today. The new local government proposals stipulate a 30% seat allocation for women. Critics object that our women will not come forward or that those who do are likely to be their husbands’ puppets.
Similar arguments were used against African Americans, especially those with poor education. However, African Americans persons were ultimately accommodated and have grown into their positions – and we have President Barack Obama. Women too will find their own positions. We must also have better lower-caste representation.
Delimitation, especially in mixed population areas, needs caution. Countering efforts at gerrymandering – drawing boundaries to split one group or ethnicity into various constituencies to deny them their own MP– is challenging.
For example, the old Jaffna electorate stretched from Colombogam to Navanthurai along the coast, giving a strong voice to fisherfolk, especially now as the educated have fled the area. Even the Federal Party (FP) had to nominate C.X. Martyn in 1970 to beat the Vellalas – Alfred Duraiappah and G.G. Ponnambalam. But because Martyn’s caste links to the Vellala hierarchy were absent, in time, he worked with Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her United Left Front (ULF). The 1977 elections saw V. Yogeswaran, a Vellala, coming on the coattails of the Vaddukoddai Resolution. After the introduction of PR, that near-sure fisherfolk seat vanished. Today, Vellalas are having nightmares that a fisher-caste TNA man from the Northern Provincial Council, Emmanuel Arnold, will be the next MP.
They also want the Nallur Temple to be part of Jaffna. There is therefore a move to gerrymander the predominantly Vellala Nallur electorate as a part of Jaffna. The main advocate is a TNA nominee to the Delimitation Committee who turned down Christians applying to the university. The fisherfolk had just that one seat. Is it right to take it away?
In the depopulated North and the East, Tamil seats are down, increasing the Tamil sense of insecurity. Yet, it is conventional wisdom in a democracy that minorities be given more representation than their numbers merit to make them feel secure and a part of the State. How can this be done?
Q: The local government election is around the corner. This will be among your first tasks to handle, as an independent body. How are you preparing for it?
A: I look forward to it, particularly to have 30% women on board. It will be a pleasure for the Commission to certify their election. I am told that we will need 90 days to prepare after the delimitation report.
Q: Do you believe Sri Lanka can gain experience from other countries on election processes?
A: Of course, just as much as we can teach others how to stand up to dictatorial regimes.
Q: There are many flaws in the current electoral system. We lack clear policies and guidelines on poll campaigns, laws on controlling poll-related violence and related issues. The preferential system is extremely unpopular. How do you see a way out of these complex issues that affect our electoral processes?
A: We still do all right. Even the US has problems with electronic voting. I wish we never go back to the rigged referendum of December 1982 and the JVP resurgence that it spawned, wiping out all democracy here.
Now, we have an Independent Election Commission with bright staff. Even engineers have elected to come here after passing the SLAS exams. They all took risks and came out on top during the two 2015 elections. Thanks to Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, there is multiculturalism practiced at the Commission.
Because of how Mahinda Deshapriya is written in Tamil, a Vanni farmer, told me that he is a Tamil and because of that he is very fair to us. Unlike certain Sinhalese Deshapriya, does not hide his Tamil antecedents, proudly saying that his grandmother was Tamil. And unlike many Tamils, he does not hide his non-farmer caste. These augur well for the inclusion, enfranchisement and empowerment of the marginalized.
I think these are good times for democracy. Challenges remain. But we shall overcome together.