The new electoral system is a hot topic of conversation with Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya at the centre of it all. In a candid interview, Deshapriya sheds light on the formulation of the new electoral system and the violations of democracy brought about by the delay of elections. He shared the following:-
Q: In this discussion about the new electoral system, you are considered as a vital link. It is a common belief that the rest is now in your hands. How do you see this?
No, it is not in my hands. The report compiled by Ashoka Peiris has to be issued as a gazette notification by the local government ministry, with the amendments relating to the number of councillors and technical faults all rectified. Only then I will receive it. These are the preliminary moves. No one speaks about the other gazettes that are required. One is that there is a regulation in accordance with the second clause of the Municipal and Urban Council ordinance and the 5th clause of the Pradeshiya Sabah Ordinance which states that a Gazette notification incorporating them should be issued by the Minister. This will only give the legality to these councils. It is stated there the boundaries of the councils and the number of councillors which had now risen and the women’s representation had increased. Power to change these are only with the Minister concerned and not given to me. If the Commission had these powers by this time we would have issued the Gazette. Because of this people are now asking is what the purpose of this Commission without powers.
Q: You mean this Commission has no powers to attend to this matter…
No government institute; not even the Supreme Court is empowered with making laws. In India, it is so. If I had such powers, we would not have waited. The elections in Batticaloa had been postponed over 14 years now. If I had that power as the Commissioner of Elections, I would have held those elections. When we were going ahead in holding those election at the end of 2012 the Act was made operative and this resulted in the Batticaloa council elections being held back from January 18, 2013. Elections had not been held in Batticaloa from March 2008. It is not our fault, but due to the faults in regulations. From 2013 we maintain that there are mistakes in the Bill. There are typing errors about 60 with 8 main errors.
Q: What are these flaws and how detrimental are they?
The authorized agent who could submit nominations, but this interpretation is not included. There was an error with regard to the counting of postal votes. When selecting under electorates’ postal votes should not be included. These should be segregated. This is one type of error. Q Has there been a prompt response from the government? These have been sent to the Attorney General and the Legal Draughtsman and the secretary of the Ministry of Local Government informed me that these had been rectified. We informed them during last December just before Ashoka Peiris released his report.
Q: You were talking of an obscured gazette. When will Ashoka Peiris’ report be Gazetted?
I was told by Minister Faizer Mustapha, that he had asked Ashoka Peiris to see him with regard to the translation discrepancies, and he also told that whether he came or not he would go ahead and issue the Gazette. He also told that amendments relating to the number of councillors would also be attended before February 21, but none of these took place. We hope that it would be done at least before February 28, as the Minister maintains that there was no reason to postpone this. What is left after that is to have the Bills prepared.
Q: Is postponing elections a good move?
Delaying elections is actually detrimental to Democracy. Elections at some local government institutions had been postponed for four years and some two years. Some say that my officials are postponing these elections. As and when I attend some social functions, they use the social media networks to ridicule me saying that I was loafing about without holding the elections. I have no authority to postpone elections, and the Commission under me too has no powers to do so either.
It is the government that should help by creating the necessary environment. If I compare the inter school match in our village, the two leading schools Ambalangoda Dharmashoka and Devananda play their annual encounter at the Ambalangoda Municipal Playgrounds. This match is organized by the Schools Cricket Association. If the ground has been dug by the municipal authorities for development, can the school cricket association demand that they be allowed to play the match without the ground being made ready for it?
Q: People who are knowledgeable about politics too blame you, and ask you why the elections are not held. How do you respond to that?
They should realize that by blaming us they are harming Democracy to a great extent. Those who blame us should realize that this was ongoing from 2010. It ended up by voters not going to the polls. This is similar to the story of the wolf and the sheep. Where the wolf drinks water at the top of the stream blames the sheep at the bottom for polluting the stream. When the innocent Sheep maintains that he never went up the stream to drink water and the wolf, being unable to put the blame on the sheep tries to land the blame on his father as having polluted the water. In a similar manner they blame the EC. We are not guilty on this issue.
Q: By what you say it infers that the government is causing this delay in order to buy time?
What I meant was we cannot reply to that, because it is improper for the EC to give a definite answer. People know well that there is an undercurrent in the deep sea which could drag people away, while the sea’s surface appears to be calm and refreshing. As people who lived close to the sea coast are fully aware of this current. I will reveal about this undercurrent on March 1.
Q: Does that mean that there would be more secrets revealed in the future?
They said before February 13 and then before 21. Wait until 28 and if that also gets postponed, there is going to be some suspicion. If the release of the Gazettes get postponed beyond that date, I may be compelled to tell that it is a deliberate act. Anyway I strongly believe no one has that motive.
Q: Once all these issues are sorted out, do you have any idea about which elections would held first? Would it be the Provincial Councils or the Local Govt?
Provincial Council elections have been delayed too long and they should be the first. As the word ‘local government’ implies, it is the member in the village who would decide on what is good for the village, and this is the base from which the youth go up to the national level politics. People are aware of its importance. The local council elections are also due this year.
Q: Would that too be postponed?
Some say that it would be postponed. The third and fourth Constitution are combined, and there are many Supreme Court decisions on this matter. I think postponing could be done only with a two thirds majority and a referendum, this has to be decided by the legal experts. There is a Supreme Court ruling that Universal Franchise is a human right.
Q: What is your opinion about our election system?
There is a dark spot on our election system for not holding elections at the correct time. I expect the rulers and the legislators would step in to solve this issue. This is a right of the people. The Elections Commission has no power. That power is vested with the the President and the 225 members in the Parliament.
Q:You were the last Elections Commissioner and the first Chairman of the Elections Commission. How do you define these two positions?
The sole power that was existent earlier is now separated with a division in responsibilities. The blame is not separated. The criticism and the blame have to be borne by self, and only the powers that are separated.
Q: Do you find there are any shortcomings?
No, there are no shortcomings. It was the wish of the Constitution makers to have Commissions. We should not cling on to old-thinking and old systems. One has to be optimistic.
Q: What is this issue on assets and liabilities?
These have been handed over by MPS and those in the Provincial Councils but not to us. We are going to inform the Bribery Commission on 28 of those party officials. Files of about 300 defeated candidates had already been sent to the Bribery Commission, and I expect them to file action.
Q: What about the mushroom political parties that are shooting up?
We have called for applications from the new parties. Standards are maintained. The party should have been in existence for at least four years or have an MP represented it in the last Parliament. In India, there are only six parties accepted at national level and 70 from State level. We have 64 accepted and four parties which had become ineffective after their acceptance. There should be an awareness whether people have accepted these parties despite our recognition.
Q: How about the enlistment of new voters?
We have provided a new scheme to enfranchise those who are above 18. At the end of every four months, a list of names of those who are18 is being compiled. All party leaders had agreed on this matter and only to present a Bill in Parliament seeking approval
Q: You were named by the opposition as a person who assisted in establishing this government. Is there any truth behind this?
Whether it is the present or the former opposition, no one blames me on that issue. The opposition members who meet me of course say various things. I have no desire to make someone win. I did not even cast my vote! But we did something in order to bring the voters to the polling booths in order to cast their votes. We are not aligned to any party, and our allegiance is always with the people.
Q: Do you have any idea of compiling a book on your experiences?
Books could be written. Everybody is writing books these days, but instead, I like to talk about it until my death. I prefer to make people aware. I cannot be the sun but I can be a firefly and be a good guide to the public. I am not stressed, and even if I am, I can overcome that by talking to you!