Monaragala Pradeshiya Sabha.

Issues crop up so fast on the political front in this country that neither the people nor commentators can keep track of them. Something of great political significance has therefore not received the attention it deserves. Last Monday’s landmark judgment by the Monaragala High Court, disqualifying a member of the Monaragala Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) for bribing voters during his election campaign in 2018, has proved that all is not lost; it has kindled hope in the campaigners for clean elections. Even the existing laws can be used to have elected people’s representatives unseated on the grounds of election malpractices.

SLPP PS member D. M. Harshaka Priya Dissanayake may not have expected legal action to be instituted against him when he threw money around to buy votes, three years ago. But a UNP candidate who lost the election moved the High Court against him, with the help of the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL). Their joint effort reached fruition.

Among the charges against Dissanayake was that he bore the cost of water and electricity connections for many households that accounted for the majority of the votes in Ward No 06, Maduruketiya in Monaragala PS. He also distributed dry rations and liquor among voters, the court was told.

Dissanayake can appeal against the judgment against him. If he fails to have it overturned, all his money spent electioneering will have gone down the gurgler.

Name of the game

Bribery is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics.Politicians bribe voters during elections, and there occurs a role reversal when polls are over; people bribe their elected representatives thereafter. Little do the people realise that they are bribed mostly with their own money that politicians help themselves to while in power.

Sri Lankan voters receive election bribes in cash or in kind.Our politicians are a very innovative lot. Time was when candidates at local government elections had trips organized forthe supporters of their opponents to prevent them from being present on the day of polling to vote. Most candidates generously distribute liquor, dry rations and cooked food during election campaigns. But these goodies do not necessarily translate into votes. About two decades ago, a candidate contesting a general election from the Galle District distributed thousands of mobile phones among the youth, but could not win. Poor voters have three square meals a day only during elections, which are like Christmas for them.

Politicians also bribe people with promises—loads and loads of them. The late Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike once promised she would ensure that the people would have enough rice even if it had to be brought from the moon, of all places. Her promise, which came to be dubbed ‘rice from the moon’ was never kept. The late President J. R. Jayewardene promised the public eight pounds of grains if the UNP won the 1977 general election. That pledge also went unfulfilled although he received a five-sixths majority in the parliament. Chandrika Kumaratunga steered the SLFP-led People’s Alliance to victory at the 1994 general election, promising, among other things, bread at Rs. 3.50. She won but bread prices continued to rise. The Rajapaksas have promised the electorate ‘prosperity’ to win elections, and it has been a long wait for those who expected that pledge to be honoured. All Sri Lankan leaders seem to be followers of Machiavelli, who said, “The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Treating symptoms, not causes

The successful legal battle against the SLPP PS member in Monaragala and the High Court judgment concerned are most welcome, but the fact remains that the worst culprits carry on regardless, and nobody dares challenge them legally or politically.

National Coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) Manjula Gajanayake said, after the last general election (2020), candidates in the fray had spent more than Rs. 2.2 billion on campaigning during the 24 days prior to the day of polling. He added that the actual amount could be around Rs. 10 billion. He placed the amount spent by the candidates at the last presidential election (2019) at Rs. 1.89 billion. These estimates are no doubt based on availablestatistics, but we believe they are still ballpark figures, for most candidates spend colossal amounts of funds on the sly. According to the CMEV, over the past 16 years, the money spent per voter by a party or an individual candidate hasincreased from Rs. 67 to Rs. 523.

Huge amounts of money the main presidential candidates receive from various undisclosed sources go undeclared, and only what is spent on advertisements, etc., can be calculated. How much the political parties distribute among their organizers is never disclosed. The Monaragala PS member got caught because he is new to the game, and did not care to cover his tracks. He apparently spent his own funds, which the authorities concerned were able to trace.

Funds for political parties and candidates mostly come from local moneybags, expatriate Sri Lankans and foreign governments. Thus, the candidates who bribe voters are also bribed by others who receive various favours from the successful candidates in return. If candidates and political parties are debarred from receiving and spending undeclared funds, the issue of election bribes can be managed to a considerable extent. Today, Sri Lanka is in a situation where the sky is the limit for the candidates and political parties in receiving and spending funds for electioneering purposes. This is the main problem that needs to be tackled.

Need for greater scrutiny of campaign finance

There are no specific laws to regulate campaign finance in Sri Lanka, and we have had to make do with the Presidential Elections Act, the Parliamentary Elections Act and the Local Authorities Elections Act. All three Acts basically categorize personation (also called impersonation), treating, undue influence and bribery as corrupt practices. The Monaragala PS member lost his seat because it was proved in court that he had bribed the voters, and it has been possible to elicit necessary information from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) with the help of the Right to Information Act. Most candidates resort to bribery to buy the allegiance of some voters, but it is difficult to prove allegations against them because information about their dealings cannot be obtained.    

The absence of tough laws to control political finance has placed wealthy candidates at an advantage. The need for regulating fundraising and campaign expenditure has been discussed during the past several years, but no concrete action has been taken. Sri Lanka being a signatory to the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), it is thought in political circles that action will have to be taken to put in place a legal mechanism to regulate campaign finance. But when this will be done remains a question.

A brief on election campaign finance in Sri Lanka, a booklet put out by Transparency International Sri Lanka, provides some valuable insights into the issues of fundraising and campaign spending here. Pointing out that unregulated use of finances could adversely impact elections, it highlights the main problems that could arise from it:The use of the election campaign process to launder illegal funds, the purchase of the allegiance of certain candidates or parties, the abuse of state resources, media patronage, favouritism by political party leaders towards wealthier candidates and the resultant loss of focus on policy priorities and the creation of an unequal playing field are some of the problems caused. New entrants to politics, the poor and the underrepresented are the invariable victims of such problems. The prejudice caused to certain segments of society due to these influences that should play no part in a democratic electoral process must therefore be prevented, ensuring more equitable representation in governing bodies.”

Way forward

Unregulated campaign finance poses a serious threat to the electoral process, for the people’s representatives become overly dependent on moneybags to win elections and are under obligation to look after their interests, instead of those of the voters who elect them. It has also turned electoral politics into a business of sorts and weakened the bonds between the electors and the elected, which are necessary to strengthen democracy; this is detrimental to democracy because people, especially the youth, lose trust in the electoral process, as can be seen from the sheer number of cynical and/or scurrilous social media posts on Sri Lankan elections, political parties, governments, the parliament and the people’s representatives.  

It is high time a mass campaign got underway to press for tougher laws to regulate campaign finance so that the corrupting influence of big money on the electoral process could be mitigated. The existing laws are full of loopholes and outdated. One of the main arguments against the Proportional Representation and the preferential vote mechanism is that they necessitate a lot of campaign expenditure because a candidate has to campaign throughout an electoral district. That was why a mixed electoral system was introduced for the Local Government institutions by way of an experiment. The hybrid system was expected to bring down campaign expenditure considerably and have representatives responsible for each ward in a local government area, but it has not yielded the desired result. Instead of curtailing expenditure, candidates with wherewithal to bribe voters continue to spend colossal amounts of money at the ward level. Hence the need for new laws and their strict enforcement.

Above all, there is a pressing need for changing the existing political culture, where people’s representatives are not kept under the microscope all the time, much less held accountable. Sri Lankans have to learn from their counterparts in advanced democracies, where governments fear the people, who are conscious of their rights, which they aggressively safeguard.


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