Our Constitution makes it clear that the People are sovereign and that their sovereignty is inalienable. However, for practical reasons, the Constitution provides for the legislative power of the People to be exercised by Parliament, consisting mostly of elected representatives, and, in respect of certain specific situations, directly by the People at a Referendum. Moreover, the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, is exercised by the President, who is separately elected by the People. Except with regard to the privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and its Members, the judicial power of the People is exercised by Parliament through the courts, tribunals and other institutions created for the purpose. On the other hand, the People do not delegate to anyone their fundamental rights and the franchise (namely, the right to vote in public elections). It is only these two specific elements of sovereignty which have remained firmly with the People after three successive Constitutions (in 1946, 1972 and 1978).
What greatly concerns the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) is that large numbers of voters often either refrain from going to the polls or spoil their ballot papers for reasons which we believe are not sound. Ad hoc inquiries from friends, relatives, co-workers, retired public officers, shopkeepers, trishaw drivers, businessmen, professionals and other voters indicate that they are quite convinced that virtually all politicians are self-seeking opportunists, irrespective of party affiliations, and that elections merely end up by helping replace one set of opportunists with another. The people interrogated have little doubt that their assessment is logical because they see how much money is spent on capturing or staying in power, and enjoying the fruits thereof. They are fully aware that most of this money is from the State coffers and many questionable sources. The amount of abuse spouted against adversaries, particularly through certain media, and the number of threats, assaults, destruction of opponents’ assets, bomb-throwing, shootings, arson attacks and even murder, which occur during election campaigns, vindicates the public’s belief that it is certainly not the politicians’ concern for their fellow citizens or the truth that motivates them to vie so viciously to be the People’s representatives. The plainly discernible objective of pretty nearly every politician is to appropriate as much as possible of the Nations’ power and wealth for his own benefit and that of those his close associates. Once in power, politicians eat as much of the cake as possible but smartly throw out enough crumbs and a mountain of Goebbelsian doublespeak to keep the majority of voters docile. In this scenario, it is not surprising that, sometimes, up to 30-40 per cent or so of the more sceptical voters refrain from casting their votes or spoil their ballot papers deliberately at our many elections.
CIMOGG believes that, despite the bleak evaluation of politicians by the public, it would be wrong and self-defeating to throw away one’s vote heedlessly. Having allowed Parliament, the President and the Judiciary to exercise most of the functions associated with sovereignty, the only remedy left to the People to counter any abuse of the trust placed by them in the President and the Parliament is to exercise their vote from time to time to retain the better representatives and throw out those who have failed to serve the interests of the People. Auspicious openings to do so occur only once in 5 or 6 years. Consequently, if one fails to take advantage of these opportunities to filter out the rubbish, such neglect would need to be classed as an unforgivable disservice to those who are still too young to vote, or are yet to be born. Moreover, we need to remember that not only do we owe a duty to those who are still to reach their voting age but also to about 2.0 Million Sri Lankan expatriate workers, who continue to be deprived of their vote, and the 1.5 Million people resident in Sri Lanka, who the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) has recently said might lose their voting rights because they do not have valid National Identity Cards for reasons beyond their control. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that we vote and do it to the best advantage possible. It is worth noting, in passing, that, whenever the Tamils of the North and East have boycotted the polls, they have ended up being worse off than before.
Let us now think about the current Presidential election. There are 22 candidates, of whom two are undoubtedly the leading contenders. Under the law, every voter is allowed to mark a “1” against his preferred first choice of candidate, a “2” against his second preference, and a “3” against his third choice. What we suggest is that this provision should be used to send a strong message to all the candidates that values and principles take primary importance in determining our first preference. This is how it could be done. Mark your first preference against the name of the candidate who you think presents a great vision and a clear programme to achieve good governance, the Rule of Law, national unity, social justice, development, media freedom etc. Statistically, it could be one of the lesser known candidates. If, now, a sizeable number of voters cast their first preference vote for this candidate, who they believe has the best vision and correct values, the election may well be forced to go to a second round because neither of the leading candidates would be able to secure the mandatory minimum 50% of the valid votes cast in the first round itself. Such a turn of events would, we believe, caution the leading candidates not to take the People for granted.
If no candidate receives 50% of the vote in the first round, only the two candidates who receive more votes than any of the remaining 20 candidates will automatically go the second round. At this stage, all the second preferences received by each of these two candidates will be added to the votes that they obtained in the first round. The second round will usually produce a winner providing most voters give their second preference to one of the leaders. As to which one is to be given the second preference is, therefore, the next crucial decision that each voter has to take.
On this subject, a political commentator in one of the weekend newspapers recommends a similar procedure, but for a slightly different reason: “Choose something (sic) exotic as your first choice … and indicate one of the favourites as your second preference. This tactic might throw up an interesting result, at least forcing a preferential vote count and stop the main men crowing about a great victory and popular support”.
A crucial issue is the question of experience or lack of experience. This criterion could work both ways. If a candidate with a lot of relevant experience were to emphasise the merits of his experience, voters will look into his past and see what he did while acquiring his experience. If the good that he did was more than the bad, voters will support him again but, if, on balance, they feel that winning this time will lead to a strengthening of his sense of invulnerability, they may well decide to be a little wary. Should this happen, voters may opt for a new face as they may feel that there is a 50:50 chance of the less experienced new person, like a new broom, doing more good than bad during his freshman term of office. The unfettered power to make this kind of decision and to vote accordingly is what democracy is all about.
CIMOGG urges every voter who has not been deprived of his vote for whatever reason to do his duty by the next generation, as well as those who have been left vote-less, by taking the trouble to cast his vote and not waste wantonly the only bit of power left in his hands to influence the future path that Sri Lanka will follow.