Imagine watching this scene unfold: a heavily pregnant woman sips a glass of milk alone at night, during a raging thunderstorm. Suddenly, she feels the pangs of labour, and grabs a phone to dial a hotline number, prompting an ambulance to rush to her residence. Immediately afterwards, you see a candidate’s name and number appear, reminding you of the politician that claimed to have founded and implemented the service.
In another election commercial, voters are requested to vote for a candidate who added and developed 6,000km of road during his tenure as Minister in charge, while another has created several commercials under a theme ‘Do you remember?” in which he highlighted Budget proposals made during his tenure as Finance Minister in a bid to garner votes.
The majority of us understand that candidates cannot engage in functions such as the laying of foundation stones, opening ceremonies and vesting in the public, utilising Government funds and State properties, during the period of an election, since the politicians attending these functions may express opinions and views on the election. Thus the conduct of these functions may lead to the promotion of, or cause prejudice to, any party, group or candidate – which is explicitly prohibited.
However, when it comes to candidates promoting projects they have already embarked on, voters seem to be vague in their opinion of whether this is ethical or not. Interestingly, even the stance of election monitoring bodies also seems to vary on this topic. However, despite a lack of unanimity on the legal aspect of the matter, they all agree that such campaigns are unethical.
Probably taking a cue from Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Presidential Election campaign, where he sought a mandate saying he had already proven himself as results-oriented, many candidates running for the Parliamentary Election were also seen canvassing for votes under similar claims.
While they try to manipulate voters’ minds displaying results of ‘massive progress’, they conveniently forget to mention that such projects were in fact carried out under Government budgetary allocations. How ethical it is for a Cabinet Minister who is paid by public funds, to tout the fulfilment of their Ministerial responsibilities using taxpayer monies, and make claims as though they spent from their own pockets, just to seek another mandate?
It is worth taking a closer look at the costs of implementing the massive projects these politicians boast of, such as the one that claimed to have added 6,000km of road to the country’s roadways, for instance.
According to Kamal Amaraweera, recently retired Director General of the Road Development Authority, building one kilometre of an elevated highway or expressway – which generally incurs the highest costs of construction – would cost Rs 5-8 billion.
“It is to develop rural roads that we spend the lowest amounts. To develop a kilometre of a 10-12 foot-wide rural road properly, it would cost something between Rs 10-20 million,” Amaraweera explained.
But does even a cent of these funds come from the pockets of the politicians claiming credit for the projects?
Can voters be hoodwinked?
The question remains as to whether this strategy being carried out by candidates is something the people take seriously. In a bid to find out what ordinary people actually think about this, Ceylon Today took to the streets.
Ekanayake, a 55-year-old taxi driver employed in Colombo but originally from Godakawela, said, “We don’t have time to watch those commercials; we are busy on the road trying to recover our income, as we were out of jobs due to the lockdown. We know who worked for the country and our areas, and who didn’t. Those who didn’t even have a motorbike when they initially contested now have houses like palaces and about two or three SUVs. Only those who are afraid of losing have to keep reminding people about what they did.”
Dananjani Yapa, a retired principal, had a different view.
“There are so many political parties. Actually, most of us are confused about who is contesting from which party, as all main parties have now split apart. Some ministers during their time may not have received the same kind of exposure in the media about their work. Therefore, they might feel the need to remind people of what they have actually done,” she said.
“On the other hand, if people do not remember you and if you are compelled to remind people of what you did, I feel sorry for you. But times have changed, and I don’t think people will determine their mandate on material things. I feel the mandate should be changed based on their policies and principles. Mine would certainly depend on that.”
Akalanka, who is in his mid-twenties and employed in a private institution while also pursuing his higher education, simply said, “I don’t think any of these people should be voted in. I am going to vote for a fresh face.”
A few others who saw no problem in certain candidates taking the credit for projects they actually took the trouble of initiating or taking forward, however noted that such projects, despite being positive moves, would run the risk of being annulled or neglected if the new Government is not from the same political party.
How ethical is this promotion tactic?
Executive Director of People’s Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL), Rohana Hettiarachchi said it is not entirely unethical for a particular candidate to promote a project they played a large role in introducing.
“There is no hard and fast rule to tackle candidates promoting what they did as ministers under different regimes. However, we as election monitors do not accept such campaigns as ethical. Even though a particular candidate may have played a larger role in introducing or carrying out a project, such projects were anyway carried out with public funds or with grants from foreign countries,” he opined.
Nevertheless, National Coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), Manjula Gajanayake is of the opinion that such acts could be penalised under the provisions of 79(1) of the Parliamentary Election Act.
“Running election commercials stating what a particular candidate has done is similar to starting a new project, giving employment or running promotions during the campaign period. In fact, we even lobbied against a certain Cabinet paper that aimed at setting up universities covering all districts, as it amounted to promoting a minister who is a candidate at this Election. Basically, it involves indirectly influencing voters,” Gajanayake noted.
Provision 79(1) of the Parliamentary Election Act states, “Every person who directly or indirectly, by himself or by any other person on his behalf, makes use of influence, or threatens to make use of any force, violence, or restraint, or inflicts or threatens to inflict, by himself or by any other person, any temporal or spiritual injury, damage, harm, or loss upon or against any person in order to induce or compel such person to vote or refrain from voting, or on account of such person having voted or refrained from voting at an election, or who by abduction, duress, or any fraudulent device or contrivance impedes or prevents the free exercise of the franchise of any elector, or thereby compels, induces, or prevails upon any elector either to give or refrain from giving his vote at an election shall be guilty of the offence of undue influence.”
Gajanayake opined that in Sri Lanka, elections are always held under a Cabinet of Ministers and not under a caretaker Government; thus, the fight to make candidates refrain from such undue influence is a real struggle.
However, Dr. Jayatissa de Costa PC, who is author of the tomes ‘Law of Elections in Sri Lanka’ and ‘The Law of Parliamentary Elections’, noted that although the existing law in this regard, which is the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 01 of 1981 as amended, is silent on the matter, such an act of taking undue credit for publicly-funded projects would have to be brought within the ambit of being a corrupt (Section 81) or illegal practice (Section 87) under this Act, in the course of a civil damages cause of action (cause of action as defined in the Civil Procedure Code).
However, even if a private remedy is pursued by way of a civil action being filed in this regard, he explained that owing to the lack of any public remedy such as interim relief being granted by Court, not to mention the subsequent appeals that would ensue and the costly and time-consuming nature of such action, this type of legal redress would not be successful and not in any way upset the election result.
He also noted that this Act had been promulgated at a time when the first-past-the-post system was in operation, whereas at present, a more convoluted electoral system is in play.
To address this particular issue, Dr. de Costa PC proposed that the entirety of the Election Law should be rewritten to suit the times, or that a change should be affected by way of a Constitutional amendment.
Role of the voter
Gajanayake also said that even though the country’s youth now goes after the popular slogan of sacking all 225, and appear unenthusiastic of voting, what they should actually do is mobilise and lobby for proper regulations to tackle such campaigns.
Retired Deputy Auditor General, M.D.A. Harald was of the opinion that candidates should be encouraged, and in fact forced, to a point where they come before the people with a proper in-depth manifesto, rather than boasting about roads or buildings they established with public funds.
Both Gajanayake and Harald were of the opinion that Budget proposals and Government projects should only be projected as the work of the State or the Government, and not as that of a candidate or group of candidates.
“It is very rarely that these Government projects are conducted in a transparent manner. Generally, these programmes involve underhand dealings and commissions. Unfortunately, these are not mentioned in the commercials they run, and people often forget this fact. Basically, voters should be enlightened to a point where they base their votes on what a particular candidate would do for his area, rather than what he already did,” Harald said.
He also emphasised that political parties should select candidates that are thorough with their future plans to uplift people in their proposed constituency.
To achieve this ideal, the Election Commission should look at amending or introducing relevant laws or directives, he noted.
The problem lies in the lack of a proper mechanism to ensure both the Executive and Legislature arms of the Government implement proper policies and continue to evaluate progress.
“For instance, if public education is up to the mark and if schools provide proper education, there is no need for students to attend private tuition. Today, the situation is such that unless you rely on private tuition, you will fail the exam, which is the continuous evaluation process. Likewise, if politicians carry out their duties and responsibilities and maintain discipline, there is no need to claim a share of ownership from projects carried out with public funds,” he added.
Most importantly, interested parties – from existing lobby groups to astute citizens – should come together to increase the election literacy of the general public, enabling them to exercise their franchise wisely.
Election Commission Chairman, Mahinda Deshapriya stressed that “the public, the media and civil organisations should play a proactive role in defending election laws. It is unfortunate that the general public turns a blind eye to election violations. For instance, there were instances of candidates violating certain election laws in broad daylight; but until one of our own officers recorded it, no one bothered to complain.
“It is through the engagement of the public and civil organisations that democracy and the right of people’s franchise are ensured. If people like Waruna Karunatillake, Victor Ivan and Arjuna Parakrama didn’t come forward when the Wayamba Election was rigged and corrupt back in 1999, if they did not seek the intervention of Supreme Court, the right of the people to excise their secret ballot would not have been ensured. Likewise, I urge people, especially the youth, to come forward in defining a free and fair election,” he urged.