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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Int. Solidarity
  • 2002.01.31
  • 682

Participating in ANFREL’s International Election Observers in Sri Lanka
Jung Eunsook (Volunteer, PSPD)

Observing election to be free and fair is a people's right in a country, with the belief that it will contribute to democratization or to consolidating democracy in a country. The PSPD has always paid significant attention to it, both inside the country and overseas, especially in Asia. There are a lot of countries where people can't practice their political rights properly and Korea used to be one of them. Korea has experienced infringements of political rights for a long period. However, civil organizations have made crucial efforts to reform Korea and have achieved a lot, although we still have a long way to go. We believe that it is time to move beyond our country and take actions for democracy in the region, which will help us to consolidate our democracy, and at the same time improve peoples' rights in the region. This is the extension of our movement at home and could be an example of international solidarity for democracy without borders.

The alliance of civil organizations in Sri Lanka called 'PAFREL' organized international and local observers through their networks for this election with the financial assistance of various European governments. Although our action started with strong belief and enthusiasm, it showed that we have huge tasks in front of us, more than what we have done so far.

This election is marked as the most violent one in its history, and is not the end of their troubles but their beginning. Let's look at the background of this election and the election system for a better understanding. President Chandrika Kumaratunga called the election when her People's Alliance (PA) party lost its parliamentary majority, plunging the country into months of political crisis. The key issues for the country's 12.4 million eligible voters are the floundering economy and whether to intensify the war against the Tigers or seek peace talks. More than 5000 candidates representing 29 political parties and 99 independent groups are vying for 225 parliamentary seats. The vote is essentially a two-horse race between the UNP (United National Party) and the PA. The UNP favors immediate talks and is more likely to lift a ban on the rebels, their main precondition for talks. The PA, on the other hand, favors military marginalization of the rebel group, along with a power-sharing deal, but refuses to lift a ban on the group until any talks have made solid progress. Other parties contesting seats in the Sinhalese areas of the country are the left wing Peoples' Liberation Front (or JVP), the right wing Sihala Urumaya, and the Muslim - National Unity Alliance. In Tamil majority areas, the recently formed four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Eelam People's Democratic Party ( EPDP) could win seats. Strangely enough, people do not vote along religious lines. Although most people in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese Buddhists, their vote is likely to be divided primarily between the PA and the UNP. Most Tamils in Sri Lanka are either Hindu or Roman Catholic. The main battle for the Tamil vote is between the TNA and the EPDP. However both parties will gain very few seats in a parliament.

Each party has a symbol and color to represent itself. For example, the PA has a chair as a symbol and blue as their color, while the UNP has an elephant as a symbol and green as their color. The JVP's symbol is a bell and their color is red. When people usually mention a party, they will simply say the chair party, or elephant party instead of saying the PA, or UNP. Having symbols and colors has been their usual practice since their independence. Surprisingly, it is nothing to do with their illiteracy rate. Actually Sri Lanka has a very low illiteracy rate since they have compulsory education for everybody. However, it is salient that symbols and colors will help voters recognize parties more easily.

The election system in Sri Lanka is very complicated. There are 225 MPs in Sri Lanka, who are elected according to the country's distinctive form of proportional representation. The nine provinces of Sri Lanka are divided into districts. Under what's called the "Bonus Vote System", the party that wins the most votes in each district gets a proportional number of seats in parliament, plus one bonus seat which is awarded automatically. There are 29 MPs who win a seat in parliament on the national list. They are elected in proportion to the number of seats won by their party. So, for example, if the People's Alliance wins the most number of seats in parliament, it will be entitled to select the largest number of national list MPs. Sri Lanka's parliament system also has a cut-off point which prevents smaller parties from being elected. One top of this there is preferential vote system where each party should give out eight candidates for the same district. Candidates of the same party have to compete each other as well as to compete against those from different parties. There are independent candidates, who function differently from those in other countries. They are actually working to get votes for the candidates for their own concerned political parties instead of themselves. In each district, there are more than forty candidates competing for one seat. Obviously, the system makes it more difficult for the election to be free and fair.

I was deployed in Monaragala district, 8 hours away from Colombo. It is one of the poorest districts in Sri Lanka because of its infertile land and lack of water. Moreover, it is a sparsely populated and an area ignored by the government. Since it is an isolated area, we found it worth our observation. Monaragala consists of three electorates: Wellawaya, Bibile, and Monaragala. Our mission started with the division of work among three international observers. The Bangladeshi guy was in charge of Wellawaya region, the Dutch women observed in Bibile, and I observed Monaragala. For three days, I visited police stations, candidates, political party offices, and polling stations. Fortunately, no major incidents are reported during our stay other than two incidents: a PA candidate was lightly beaten by the army, and the house of the independent candidate was shot by an unknown person. Violence was very common in this election. Although there were lots of rumors around that intimidation against different party supporters and voters were to be committed on the election day, many people turned up to vote from early in the morning. The main problem in Monaragala was not violence but the election system and law themselves. For example, people do not need to carry their ID for voting, and the marking place is so insecure that other people can watch if they intend to do so. Local observers are not allowed in polling stations, let alone international observers. Only EU and Commonwealth observers are allowed inside polling stations. Although PAFREL has organized thousands of local observers nationwide, they have to do their work a significant distance from the polling stations. Moreover, counting is not supposed to be done on the spot and all ballot boxes are to be taken to counting stations. However, the counting procedure is not open to the public at all. That is why there are a lot of manipulations inside the counting stations and it is expected to have happened this time as well.

The election in Sri Lanka is fundamentally flawed. Even if the election had been done according to law, peoples' rights couldn't have been protected properly. What is more needed now is to make concerted efforts to reform the election system and revise the election law. Observing the election should not be the end of task but the beginning of our movement. Furthermore, independence of the election commissioner should be guaranteed, and election observers should be given rights to observe the election inside the polling stations and counting stations. Without much effort to change the environment, the activity for observing the election could be a one-time activity.

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