By Ali Naafiz
Election monitoring groups which acted as observers in Saturday’s local government elections has blamed the lack of voter education for the high number of rejected votes from the once war-torn northern districts.
Mr. Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of one of the main election monitoring groups, People’s Action For Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), told the Sunday Times that the people of the north were not aware of the voting procedure.
“The high number of rejected votes in the northern districts was as expected because elections were held in both Kilinochchi and Jaffna for the first time in 30 years. The [lack of] voter education is the main reason.
They didn’t know how to vote in the election; whether they have to choose only the preferential vote or choose both the preferential vote as well as the party,” he said.“From our experience, we also feel that some of the votes were purposely cancelled.
But we can’t say this for sure. This is just what we feel from what we learned from our monitors,” he said.
Mr. Rohana highlighted the high turnout of voters in the northern districts and stressed that the PAFFREL conducted 100 small-group discussions in Kilinochchi and Jaffna ahead of the elections in the two districts.
“We had small-group discussions in Kilinochchi and Jaffna to educate the people about the voting procedure, how they should vote in the election, their role in the local governments, and how they can monitor the elected councils after the election,” he said.
Mr. Rohana further emphasised the need to conduct awareness programmes for the newly elected council members – most of whom, he said, do not have the necessary experience and knowledge about the functioning of the councils.
Official figures show that 16,402 (7.91 percent) votes out of the 173,682 total votes cast in the Jaffna district were rejected while 4,328 (10.8 percent) votes out of the 39,828 total ballots cast in the Kilinochchi district were declared invalid. In the Mullaitivu district, votes of 335 (9.85 percent) people out of the 3,401 total voters were also rejected.
Mr. Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon, from the other main election monitoring group, Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), also blamed the lack of proper voting education in the north for the high amount of rejected votes, which he described as ‘disturbing’.
“Elections were not held in those districts for about three decades. Most of the people in the northern districts voted for the first time. They didn’t have proper voting education and they weren’t aware of the voting procedure. Some voted only for the candidates without selecting a party,” he said.
Mr. Tennakoon, however, noted that the CaFFE carried out voter education programmes in the northern districts and distributed leaflets about the voting procedure to the people ahead of Saturday’s election.
“But the need for more voter education programmes is high in the north. Of course, we will be conducting voter education programmes for future elections as well,” he said.
Saturday’s election was the first ever election held in almost three decades in the northern districts such as Kilinochchi, Jaffna and Mullaitivu – the areas mostly affected by the prolonged Tamil separatist war that was brought to an end in 2009 by government forces.
Assistant Elections Commissioner A.K.S. Karunanidhi meanwhile, said most of the voters were confused and not well educated about the preferential voting system. “They haven’t voted in any election in the last two decades,” he said.