Towards a free and fair poll | Daily News


Towards a free and fair poll

Now that all the main candidates have been confirmed and the nominations date is just two days away, the intensity of the propaganda campaigns for the Presidential Election 2019 will no doubt increase proportionately. This is also bound to be a time where political rhetoric of campaigners and supporters sometimes gets out of hand, leading to a state of acute embarrassment for the candidate(s) concerned. After all, opponents are smeared with all types of allegations during election campaigns here.

This is exactly what Prime Minister and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is keen to avoid, judging by his recent advice to UNP activists. He has explicitly warned them not to engage in mudslinging or smear campaigns against opponents and instead focus only on the strengths and policy programmes of their candidate, regardless of any provocations from the opposite side. The campaign should be carried out in a decent and disciplined manner, the Premier has rightly emphasized.

This is indeed a timely and much-needed dose of reality that all politicians should absorb as they head into the short campaign period. There should be no place for uncivilized words and allegations in the campaign. Voters, especially first time voters, will no doubt take his factor into consideration when voting. It has been proven time and again that the most vilified candidates earn public sympathy and even the number one spot.

The leaders of the respective political parties must necessarily instruct their speakers to tone it down as incendiary speeches will not bring the desired results. On the other hand, they can alienate voters, especially the so-called “floating” voters who sit on the fence and decide on their choice at the last moment. In the context of Easter Sunday events and aftermath, the leaders must also impress upon their charges the need to keep communal and religious passions firmly in check in their actions and speeches. The country can do without further sectarian violence at this juncture.

The same goes for political violence in general. Violence claims the lives of at least one or two persons at every election, but political leaders must be determined not to let that happen this year. The only way of doing so is to instruct their followers not to engage in boorish behaviour at any time in the campaign and on Election Day itself. Grassroots level activists should also realise that politics is simply not worth dying for. As is often the case, top level leaders rise above politics in their interactions while the grassroots supporters engage in hostile actions. This toxic political culture must be stopped dead in its tracks. The Police and elections officials must be given wider powers to prevent any instances of violence and to seek the maximum punishment for those who violate election laws in whatever manner.

The candidates must also make a commitment to the environment during their campaigns. At least one candidate has already pledged to go polythene free, though some party supporters had not apparently received this memo. Posters too should not be pasted everywhere indiscriminately – most cities and towns now have designated billboards for posters. They should also clean up the rally venues once the rallies are over. Sound pollution is another important aspect – the candidates and rally organisers must ensure their propaganda activities do not disturb children studying for the GCE O/L examination in December.

One alternative to all these is to increase the number of print and electronic advertisements. One should also not forget that all candidates will get air time on Rupavahini to outline their policies and programmes. This time should be utilized not to attack political opponents, but to present the candidate’s aspirations and programmes. Moreover, elections authorities have basically told independent and minor party candidates not to act as proxies of main candidates during the allocated air time.

The candidates must also navigate the social media minefield carefully, as there is every possibility that fake news, trolls and hyper-realistic “deep fake” audio-video could undermine their reputation and credibility. Social media and the Web may be essential to woo the younger generation to vote, but there could be a propensity to distort facts that may boomerang on the candidates themselves. Granted, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to “police” the Web but those who browse Facebook and the rest of the Web must look out for political misinformation – as the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

All voters will no doubt hope for a free and fair, peaceful poll on November 16. Party leaders must take the lead in ensuring that no elections laws are violated in the run up to D-Day, so that the public can exercise their franchise freely and elect the President of their choice.

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