A record setting poll | Daily News


A record setting poll

Nominations for the eighth Presidential Election were accepted yesterday at the Elections Secretariat. It turned out to be a lengthy affair, partly because the Elections Commission had to process 35 candidates, a record number. However, this was six less than the 41 who made deposits but then quit without handing in nominations. Unlike in other editions of the Presidential Election, no nomination paper was rejected.

This Presidential Election will witness many ‘firsts’ as well as other unique dimensions. For the first time ever, a Presidential Election will see no sitting President, Prime Minister or Opposition Leader in the fray. This effectively means that the present President could be a one-term President, unless he comes forward as a candidate at a future Presidential Election, as one can become President only for two terms. This is also why the present Opposition Leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not contest this time. His brother Gotabhaya is contesting instead, having survived legal action over the citizenship issue.

Incidentally, this is the first time that a brother (Gotabhaya) of a former President and a son (Sajith Premadasa) of a former President (Ranasinghe Premadasa) are contesting in a Presidential Election. 1994 saw Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, daughter of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, emerge victorious.

The ‘Pohottuwa’ (Flower Bud) will be a new symbol in the presidential poll ballot paper (which is likely to be more than one foot long to accommodate 35 names), though the Swan returns for the third time (2010 – Sarath Fonseka, 2015 – Maithripala Sirisena and 2019 – Sajith Premadasa). Coincidentally, it marks the third time that the UNP’s Elephant symbol will be missing from the ballot paper, with the SLFP’s Hand symbol also missing for nearly 30 years. This also means that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has sacrificed his potential candidature for the third time in a row in the greater interest of the party.

The JVP will be doing away with their famous Bell symbol this time, going in a new direction under the Compass symbol of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya. With 35 candidates in the fray (among them nearly 15 independents), the Elections Commission also faced the unenviable task of allocating new symbols for many of the candidates.

The poll will witness candidates from virtually all communities, with some candidates from the minorities making deposits literally at the last minute. Analysts say this is a good trend, as some of these candidates had previously expressed doubts about the electoral process. This is also the first time that two Buddhist monks will be contesting a Presidential Election, with one of them already having contested a previous version.

However, it is an eternal shame for local politics that only one woman has come forward from political parties/independent groups for the 2019 election. This is a serious indictment on our male-dominated political system and we can only hope that political parties will atone for this abject failure and field more women candidates at a forthcoming General Election, especially those with a professional background, as opposed to generational women politicians.

This poll will see a former Army Commander in the fray for only the second time in our history – General Mahesh Senanayake, who retired just a few weeks ago - the first being Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in 2010. There is no provision against the candidature of retired public servants, though they obviously cannot enlist any serving public servants for their propaganda work.

As for propaganda, strict instructions have been issued by the Elections Commission on how the candidates can promote their prospects. There will be a strict ban on “proxy” candidates campaigning on behalf of other candidates. Strict media guidelines have also been issued. But this election shows signs of becoming a logistical nightmare by all accounts as there are 35 candidates – even the seemingly simple task of allocating 45 minutes of air time (in three 15 minute blocks) for each candidate on SLRC and SLBC is mind-boggling, to say the least.

It should also prove to be the most expensive election ever held in Sri Lanka - Rs.4000 million has been set aside for conducting the poll, not counting the billions the candidates will spend on propaganda. The Elections Chief has noted that this amount would not be adequate given the number of candidates. Since each candidate can allocate two polling agents per polling station, there could theoretically be 70 polling agents. Hence the request to voluntarily cut down on the number of agents at each polling station. Bigger counting centres will also be needed.

This is also the first Presidential Election to be conducted by an independent Elections Commission. The Commission itself will be interacting with the public via social media such as Facebook vis-à-vis any public complaints and suggestions. This is a sound strategy, since the political parties too will be heavily promoting their candidates via the same channels.

With only around 40 days to go before the polls, the propaganda drive will be more intense than any witnessed previously. Our hope is that sanity and civility will prevail, allowing Sri Lankans to freely elect their next leader.

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