In Parliament on Wednesday
Debate on the Local Authorities Elections Amendment Bill
‘Elections chief has authority to put off local polls’

By Sumadhu Weerawarne and Kesara Abeywardena

The main opposition parties Wednesday called for an assurance from the government that the amendments to the Local Government Elections Act debated in Parliament Wednesday would not be used to postpone elections in the North and East of the country.

Government speakers in response said that the discretion would be with the Elections Commissioner.

The first speaker for the opposition PA’s Nimal Siripala de Silva asked the government to stipulate an upper limit on the period for postponement, expressing concern that the provision would allow for an indefinite postponement of local government elections. He noted that in the Parliamentary Elections Act there was only provision for the postponement of elections by a fortnight.

Two other opposition speakers, former ministers Richard Pathirana and John Seneviratne called for the postponement of elections in all areas if there were moves to postpone elections in the North and East of the country.

Minister G. L. Peiris in response said that even under current provisions of the Local Authorities Act it was possible to postpone elections in emergency situations, and the amendment merely extended the discretion given to the returning officer to postpone elections to cover unforeseen circumstances as well. He said the concerns about an indefinite postponement were without basis, as the discretionary powers granted by the act were governed by the need to act reasonably.

Explaining the main thrust of the amendments to the Local Authorities Elections Act, Leader of the House Minister W. J. M. Lokubandara said that it sought to enable the filing of petitions in the event of election malpractices, and also to enable the postponement of elections "due to any emergency or unforeseen circumstances."

He added that even under the present provisions it was possible to postpone elections at the behest of the Returning Officer for an electoral district ‘due to any emergency.’ "The Act says that in the event of such postponement, the election will be held only after the lapse of three weeks. So there is already the provisions in place to enable an indefinite postponement of an election," he said.

He added that in terms of the election laws for parliamentary and provincial council elections there was the possibility of postponement.

He charged the JVP of needlessly calling the amendment a Tiger act without reading the contents of the main act which he said contains provisions enabling a postponement. "The amendments are in line with the new culture of politics that we hope to bring," he said.

He claimed that the opposition was crying foul because it had failed in its attempts to have the entire election postponed. "This is how the opposition seeks to deny the democratic rights of the people," he said.

Nimal Siripala De Silva (PA-Badulla) charged that the most important clause of the amendment which deals with the postponement of elections has not been discussed by the Supreme Court determination.

He said that a returning officer of a certain Pradeshiya Sabha can postpone an election saying there are violent incidents that take away the rights of the voters. "Now an election in a certain local government authority can be postponed indefinitely."

He was of the view that this amendment has been brought to appease the Tigers.

He said that there are other important amendments to the Local Government Ordinance like resuming the ward system. "The government is misleading the whole country by hiding the provisions for postponing elections under the provisions enabling to entertain election petitions."

He added that the government is today going before the LTTE on bended knees and is trying to appease them. "I ask the government to give a guarantee to the country that they will not postpone the local government elections in the North and East."

Minister G. L. Peiris commending the amendments said that the purpose was to "achieve uniformity" in the rules that govern elections. He said that in the laws governing presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections there was provision for the postponement of elections in an emergency or unforeseen situation, while in the local authority election laws there was only provision for the postponement of elections in emergency situations.

"We only seek to achieve uniformity," he said.

He added that even under the existing provision it was possible to postpone elections indefinitely, given the extended definition given to the term "emergency" by the Supreme Court.

Responding to opposition concerns that the law could be used to postpone elections for all time, he said that the underlying principle governing "discretionary powers" conferred on any person or authority was that it must be exercised reasonably. "The courts have ample discretion to strike down arbitrary and capricious use of discretion," he said.

He too noted that in providing for the filing of petitions challenging local government elections in the event of malpractices, the government had strengthened democracy.

Accusing the government of trying to postpone the elections in the North-East Nandana Gunatilleka (JVP-Kalutara) said that the government is trying to strengthen democracy. "This amendment has been brought in so urgently to appease the LTTE."

He said that the LTTE does not want the democratic process to take shape in the North-East. "This is the reason to bring this amendment with utmost urgency."

He charged the government for trying to strengthen the LTTE by giving into their demands. "The LTTE is now gathering arms, recruiting people and strengthening themselves."

Karu Jayasuriya (Minister of Power and Energy) maintained that the amendments were broad based on recommendations made by civil society representatives and opposition political parties.

He welcomed the position of the PA that the ward system should be re-introduced. He said that more discussion was needed on these matters. He also asked the opposition to get independent observers to monitor the local government election.

Commending the provisions enabling petitions in the event of election malpractices R. Sampanthan TULF-National List sought to explain why it was not possible to hold elections in the North and East.

He said that many of the voters were displaced and were unable to exercise their franchise in the event of an election.

He gave the example of Chavakachcheri as an area devastated by the war and uninhabited by people on account of which elections were an impossibility.

"And how can there be elections in uncleared areas, where public officers cannot go to these places and police officers too cannot go to these areas to provide security," he said. He also added that there was also no possibility to have clustered booths to enable voters in uncleared areas to come in.

He said that the amendment encompassing unforeseen circumstances was one that would help the election authorities take appropriate decisions, to ensure that elections are held at a time the situation in the North and East had been remedied.

Is it your position that you merely use the LTTE brush to paint every step taken in the interest of preserving the democratic rights of the Tamil people?" he asked the PA and JVP.

On another note the member asked the JVP to declare its position on the government-LTTE peace talks. "Is it that they believe that the resolution of political problems is through military means?" He posed asserting that it had been publicly expressed both domestically and internationally that there could not be a military solution to the conflict.

"Though there had been no honourable solution to the Tamil national question, there was a determined effort on the part of successive governments to defeat the LTTE militarily," he said.

He asked of the JVP whether having come into the democratic mainstream from being an organisation which at one point of time was engaged in an armed struggle itself is going back to the position that it places greater faith in the resort to military action to find solutions to political problems."

He asked the JVP and the PA to act with a greater sense of responsibility in relation to the peace process and "look upon peace as something very sacred which the country can no longer fail to achieve."

Dinesh Gunawardena (PA-Colombo) said that the urgency to postpone elections is needed only by the LTTE. Condemning the earlier speech made by TULF MP R. Sampanthan he charged that the leader of the TULF had expressed the views of the LTTE.

He rejected the government’s reason for bringing the amendment so as to create uniformity in Presidential, Parliamentary, Provincial Council and Local Government elections. "It is not so. The parliamentary election can be postponed only for 14 days. Therefore now it is clear that what the government gave as reason is not true.

He charged the TNA for influencing the government to postpone elections in the North-East and take away the voting rights of the people in those areas. "It is not only the TNA that is contesting this election. There are many other Tamil groups who have come to the democratic mainstream among those who are contesting the election."

He said that holding elections would not obstruct the peace process. "Let new politicians emerge in those areas," he said.

Questioning motives behind the presentation of amendments, Chandrasekaran JVP said that it had been brought to satisfy the LTTE.

Commenting on the TULF MP R. Sampanthan’s speech "Who has denied democracy to the Tamil people since 1993," he asked. He also pointed out that it was the UNP that had dis-enfranchised the upcountry Tamils and traced to history to conclude that it was the UNP that had denied the rights of the Tamil people.

He then blamed the LTTE for the plight of the people in Wanni. He pointed out that entire families were being taken by the LTTE.

Questioning the homeland concept he asked if the North-East is the homeland of the Tamils, what would happen to Tamils in the South: "Please give up your plan of dividing this country into Tamil and non-Tamil areas," he said.

Urging that elections be held Nadaraja Madanaraja (EPDP-Jaffna District) said that development would follow if elections were held.

He commended the government for opening the road, and lifting the ban on fishing and the release of prisoners.

But on lifting the ban on fishing he said that the government needed to relax sea-surveillance to enable fishermen to fish in peace.

He also commented on the high numbers of Tamil youth detained under the PTA. "Please release them," he urged the government.

Richard Pathirana (PA-Galle) said that the opposition will oppose the Bill if the section dealing with the postponement of elections is not removed. "In a few days time the Local Government Elections in the North-East will be postponed as promised by the Prime Minister to the TNA."

He maintained that the ward system should be re-introduced to Local Government Elections. "When we were in the government we were trying to re-introduce the ward system but the present prime minister who was the opposition leader then did not agree to it."

Athauda Seneviratne (PA-Kegalle District) expressed puzzlement as to why there had not been any discourse on the proposed legislation. He said that previous proposals were to limit the nominations period and hold quick elections. But this was later abandoned. He asked why the government was bringing in current amendments with such urgency even after calling nominations. "This leaves room to speculate that there is a hidden motive," he said.

Observing that if the situation in the north and east of the country had greatly improved from what it was at the last general election, he asked why there was the need to postpone elections? "If you are going to postpone election, do this in the entire country, or hold elections countrywide," he said.

Observing that even candidates at local polls had to conduct expanded campaigns, he called for a re-introduction of the ward system.

"The proportional representation system must be replaced at all levels and the German electoral system introduced," he said.