Published in www.thecommonwealth.org on Jan. 10::
The Commonwealth Observer Group commends the people of Sri Lanka for the spirit in which they participated in this important election. The high voter turnout of 81.52 per cent reflects positively on the Sri Lankan people’s strong commitment to the democratic process.
The Group further commends the key political actors for accepting the results of the election and for reinforcing in their public statements the need to respect the rule of law in the days to come.
The Commonwealth Observer Group has been present in Sri Lanka since 2 January 2015. The Group’s mandate was to observe and consider all aspects of the electoral process and assess compliance with the standards for democratic elections to which Sri Lanka has committed itself. Where appropriate, the Group will make recommendations for the future strengthening of the electoral process.
The Group was tasked with considering, among other things, whether conditions existed for credible elections, including a fair pre-election environment; the transparency of the entire process; whether voters were free to express their will; and whether the counting and results process was transparent.
Over the next four days and before our departure, the Group will complete its Final Report for submission to the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Following this, he will send it to the Office of the Commissioner of Elections, the Government of Sri Lanka, political parties, relevant stakeholders, and eventually to all Commonwealth governments. The Final Report will, in due course, be made available to the public.
Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, the Group held meetings with the Commissioner of Elections, domestic observers, representatives of political parties, civil society and media monitors, the police, legal and constitutional experts, Commonwealth High Commissioners, Ambassadors resident in Sri Lanka, the United Nations Resident Coordinator and international observers. The Group also attended two rallies at the end of the election campaign.
Observer teams were deployed in Colombo, the Northern, North Western, East, and Southern Provinces where they also met local officials and domestic observers.
During these meetings, concerns were raised about a number of factors during the campaign, notably:
- The widespread abuse of state resources, including the comprehensive bias of state media against the Common Opposition Candidate and his supporters; the use of military personnel and public officials to support the President’s campaign; the blatant use of Government monies, handouts and gifts to induce voters; and, the extensive use of state-owned public transport for campaigning by the incumbent.
- The use of violence, mainly targeting supporters of the Common Opposition Candidate, or at his campaign offices and rallies. Complaints were also made regarding attacks on the supporters of the incumbent President and a reported assault on two election officials on 5 January in Trincomalee.
- The violation of election law with regard to promotional material and the denial of campaign rally venues to the Common Opposition Candidate.
Other major concerns raised were:
- The potential role of the armed forces and that of private security personnel formerly employed by the armed forces to disrupt the election or to intimidate voters.
- Security arrangements around the transmission of ballot boxes to the counting centres and integrity of the counting process and transmission of results.
- The selective disruption of public transport on election day, thereby disallowing people to cast their votes.
- The lack of power vested in the Commissioner of Elections to enforce electoral law.
- The non-independence of key public institutions and the lack of an established Elections Commission.
- The possible disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters in opposition strongholds.
Prior to the elections, the Observer Group sought assurances from key actors regarding some of the critical concerns raised:
- The police provided assurances that all law and order personnel would fall under the authority of the police and that neither political nor military influence could intervene in the police line of command.
- It was made clear to the Group that in the event of an extreme situation, the army could only be deployed following an instruction from the Commissioner of Elections, and that any military deployment under these circumstances would fall under the command of the police.
- Special police units had been set up and armed policemen would be present at all polling stations with back-up patrols and Special Task Force officers would be present at counting centres to maintain election law. The Group was informed that police would provide security to ensure the safe transmission of ballot boxes from the polling booths to the counting centres.
- The Commissioner of Elections provided a comprehensive outline of his remit and the procedures on election day. These included assurances regarding the safe transmission of ballot boxes to the counting centres, integrity of the counting process and the transmission and announcement of results.
- The Commissioner had directly intervened in several cases where election law had been flouted, including in the abuse of state media by the incumbent party. In response to queries regarding potential violence, the Commissioner said that it was in his power to order a re-poll if necessary. He added that provisions had been made to ensure that people affected by recent flooding would be able to vote.
Commonwealth Observers found that:
- The election campaign period was marked by an unequal contest with extensive, large-scale abuse of state resources. They noted the comprehensive bias of state media against the Common Opposition Candidate’s campaign; the use of military personnel and public officials to support the President’s campaign; the use of Government monies, gifts and other inducements; and, the widespread use of state-owned public transport by the incumbent.
- The Common Opposition Candidate’s campaign received little to no coverage in the state media in clear contravention of the provisions of the Constitution, the Presidential Elections Act and relevant guidelines issued by the Commissioner of Elections. The high penetration of state run radio, television and newspaper across the island, and especially in rural areas, increases the burden of responsibility on state media to take seriously its obligation as a public resource for citizens.
- Significant instances of violence in the campaign period had credible links to political party office bearers and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation with concerns about potential violence on election day.
- Sri Lanka’s Election law disallowing the display of cut-outs, posters and campaign material for candidates in public spaces was systematically flouted outside of campaign venues or campaign offices.
- Some local authorities had denied the Common Opposition Candidate use of public spaces for campaign venues, in contravention of Sri Lanka’s election law. The ability to campaign is a basic requirement for an electoral contest.
On election day, the Group observed a peaceful and well-managed process with a high voter turnout. They found that:
- Voters appeared to exercise their franchise freely with the bulk of voters turning out in the first half of the day, allowing for a smooth and timely closing of the polls.
- Election officials managed the polling process efficiently, including the opening and closing of the polls. There appeared to be no substantial challenges to the voter register at polling stations observed.
- Polling stations were laid out as per instructions from the Commissioner of Elections, however this layout did not in all instances guarantee that the secrecy of the ballot was provided for.
- There was a visible police presence on polling day and during counting.
- Vote counting was conducted transparently, with counting officials working diligently and with dedication into the early hours of the morning. Domestic observer groups were allowed access to vote counting centres for the first time at this election.
- The declaration of results was swiftly relayed to media and to the public.
The Group commends domestic observer groups and civil society for the role they played in monitoring and reporting during the election period. Their robust and fearless work ensured that democratic processes were safeguarded.
The efforts, integrity and determination of the Commissioner of Elections was deeply impressive throughout the election period. All major stakeholders stated that they had faith in his ability to deliver, despite the limitations of the role. His staff are also to be commended for their professionalism and dedication under challenging circumstances. The Group recognises that the Office of the Commissioner of Elections lacks the necessary powers of enforcement with regard to election law violations and also lacks legislative independence from the Executive. Furthermore, in the absence of an independent Elections Commission, Sri Lanka’s electoral framework does not provide for the basic conditions for democratic elections.
The outcome of the 2015 election reflected the will of the people of Sri Lanka. It is however the view of the Group that the inadequate electoral and legal framework coupled with an unequal pre-electoral environment means that this electoral contest did not comply with all the key benchmarks for democratic elections.