‘Every vote counts - your vote counts’ | Daily News


 

‘Every vote counts - your vote counts’

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at SLPP campaign events in Polonnaruwa
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at SLPP campaign events in Polonnaruwa

“Vote is your right, your voice, your power and your future. Come and vote as you wish. Polling station is safer than any other public place when the risk of infecting COVID-19 is taken into account. Polling stations are safer than supermarkets, public markets, railway stations, trains, CTB or private buses, schools, government offices, banks, private institutions and all other types of workplaces. Come, do not fear. ‘Defeat for COVID-19-Democracy for the people’ ”

The above is a message National Election Commission (NEC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya posted on his Facebook on Friday as he reposted a quote from German President Frank- Walter Steinmeier to stress the importance of voting.

Before the General Election in Germany in September, 2017, President Steinmeier, in an opinion piece to national weekly newspaper ‘Bild am Sonntag’, penned, “Voting is a civic duty. Go and vote! Every vote counts - your vote counts. People who do not vote allow others to decide the future of our country”.

With barely a month to go for a crucial national election, for which nearly Rs 10 billion will have to be forked out from the public purse as the NEC together with its staff and all other stakeholders painstakingly puts in place a host of proactive measures to ensure a safe and fool-proof election, Deshapriya thought it fit to remind the citizens of Steinmeier’s words with an appeal to ‘vote’.

National Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa addressing a campaign rally in Ambalanthota
SJB leader Sajith Premadasa addressing an election meeting in Narahenpita

Polling time extended

Sri Lanka goes to the polls in a situation where COVID-19 is under control, and is among the very few countries to do so. The higher the voter turnout, the higher will be the credibility of that Election and it will also mean a clearer mandate for the elected.

The average voter turnout has been quite high as 75 percent in the last ten national elections (Presidential and Parliamentary polls) held in Sri Lanka over the past two decades, according to ‘ElectionGuide’ online resource maintained by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an international non-profit. The total polled stood at 83.72 percent at the last year’s Presidential Election and it was 77.66 percent in the 2015 General Election.

Reading comments to Deshapriya’s post, one may understand that some people harbour the impression that their vote is not worth it, mainly due to the creeping disillusionment regarding contemporary politicians and political culture. However, that is all the more reason why the people should vote and do it more responsibly.

The Commission announced on Monday that the voting time of August 5 Election will be from 7 am to 5 pm. An extra hour has been facilitated as additional health and safety measures are in place this time. Meanwhile, the Commission is also awaiting the gazette of Health Guidelines for the General Election by health authorities. The gazette was due two weeks back and election authorities are puzzled over its delay. It was reported that the gazette received the green light from the Attorney General last week.

President joins in

The election campaigns of mainstream parties gathered momentum this week as their leaders stepped into the campaign trails more actively.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa spent the weekend in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa attending dozens of election meetings of ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’ (SLPP) candidates to throw his weight behind them to assure a resounding victory to the party. He also took the time to talk to the people and listen to their comments and complaints.

Interestingly, he was present at former President Maithripala Sirisena’s election meeting too despite the hostility of some SLPP members towards the SLFP group led by Sirisena. It was reported that the President intends to travel to all districts in a bid to support the SLPP candidates.

At the same time, the President has made a special order not to use his photographs in the propaganda campaigns of candidates. The directive could be to prevent any misuse of his image in the run up to the Election. This decision, however, did not sit well with some candidates who were in the habit of basking in the reflected glory of their leader.

The President through his Secretary also reiterated his order that public officials serving in Security Forces, Government Service, Corporations, Boards and Statutory Bodies should not engage in political activities.

Electioneering

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was engaged in the SLPP campaign trail at his home turf in Hambantota over the weekend. As the Kurunegala District team leader of the SLPP, he started off the campaign in his constituency yesterday.

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe led the Colombo District inaugural election rally at Abdul Hameed Street in Hulftsdorp on Friday and attended many pocket meetings in the Colombo Central electorate over the weekend.

Its breakaway group Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa started the campaign early and it aims to organise 1,000 pocket meetings before the curtain comes down on the campaigns.

Likewise, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake with his comrades has been actively involved in ground level campaigning for the National People’s Power (NPP), a broader political alliance led by the JVP.

In the North, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders have been campaigning for a sweeping majority for them in the Tamil speaking polity to be in a formidable position in Parliament.

Compared to many elections held in recent years, a saner environment prevails this time when it comes to campaigning with a noticeable reduction in in-your-face advertising campaigns and the absence of mass rallies crowded with busloads of supporters.

Candidates stick to pocket meetings, distribution of leaflets (in some cases with bloated profiles), house-to-house visits and social media engagement, taking the election campaigning in the right spirit thanks to the restrictions in place in the wake of COVID-19.

Cabinet proposal

In a different turn of events, the Government’s sudden announcement that it was contemplating on transferring state-owned lands, which are considered as ‘residual forests’, to District and Divisional Secretariats has stirred up controversy.

Many leading environmentalists and environmental organisations faced off this Cabinet proposal questioning its rationale. They were joined by various political groups and activists.

As explained by Co-Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena, the Government’s intention of this proposed move is to minimise land problems of the rural people who are dependent on small scale farming such as Chena cultivation. For this purpose, the Government seeks to retract a circular issued in 2001 to allow local administration bodies to release those lands to other parties.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at  a Colombo Central election meeting

The term ‘residual forests’, or more correctly ‘other State forests’, is used to distinguish any State forest land that is not gazetted as a ‘Protected Area’ under the law. About half a million hectares of forest cover in the country belong to this category.

In the face of this new development, Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage wrote to authorities demanding to protect the ‘5/2001 Circular’, which brought these forest lands under the Forest Conservation Department’s protection. Observing that these forest patches contain rich biodiversity, important animal habitats and animal corridors, he pointed out that the Circular was issued because, in the first place, the District/Divisional Secretaries failed to save them from encroachment, illegal logging and habitat destruction.

JVP former MP Bimal Rathnayake writing to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on this same issue, requested not to proceed with the decision in a hurried manner, but wait till Parliament convenes so that it could be extensively discussed.

He suggested appointing a committee comprised of environmental experts to study the impact of rescinding the Circular. Rathnayake, registering his opposition to the Cabinet proposal, opined that it could cause a greater environmental harm and called on the President to abandon it.

Minister Dr. Gunawardena however took pains to defend the proposal stating that environment and wildlife would not be harmed.

In order to avoid adverse environmental impacts in the future, experts say Governments should consult experts in the relevant fields before pushing ahead with plans like these. Living in an age of natural calamities, the country should balance agriculture, development and environment with utmost care. Policy makers have an inalienable responsibility in this regard.


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