Three principal issues arise when voters ponder upon what action they should take regarding the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections. The first issue is whether to vote or not. The second is to decide on the party to support. The third is to identify the three preferred candidates.
In early January, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) appealed to the public not to waste their valuable franchise even if they felt strongly that casting their votes would do nothing to reduce corruption or reverse the escalating contempt for the Rule of Law and good governance. This call was made despite our being aware that so many of the better known candidates spend millions of ill-gotten rupees and employ mafia-style methods to outmanoeuvre and defeat their opponents and party rivals, reckoning that the resources so deployed could eventually be recovered ten-fold, or even a hundred-fold. It is only by casting your vote in such a manner as to send a clearly understandable message to the parties and their candidates that the deterioration in the quality of our Parliamentary representation can begin to be reversed. Our plea to the public, therefore, is: “DO NOT FAIL TO VOTE AND, WHEN YOU DO, PLEASE GIVE A CLEAR SIGNAL THAT ROGUES AND INCOMPETENTS HAVE NO PLACE IN PARLIAMENT”. Moreover, voters should also persuade everyone they know to put their vote to good use so as to avoid what happened at the Presidential polls, where over 3.8 Million registered voters abstained or were unable to exercise their franchise.
As to the second issue, viz. which party is to be endorsed, one would ordinarily need to compare what is promised by the different parties in their manifestos. However, when we recall how even the most solemn election undertakings made in the past were unashamedly breached by the parties who came into power then, it is our view that it would be better to give priority to the quality of the candidates being put forward rather than to the glittering policies and promises being marketed. After you evaluate the various parties’ candidates on the lines suggested below, you may find, to your surprise, that you need to change your mind about whether to vote for the party you had initially decided to back or some other party or group.
Over the past couple of decades, increasing numbers of citizens have complained about the poor quality of the persons voted in as MPs. This year, the letters and articles published in the Press on this subject have been more numerous and more critical than before any previous election. Most of them have listed the qualities they think that a candidate should or should not have. If one collated all the criteria proposed, the list would be rather long and many voters could get lost in applying it to the task of assessing the relative suitability of the candidates. So, with simplicity in mind, CIMOGG has worked out an appropriate procedure to help voters choose better MPs.
A straightforward evaluation of the 300 or so candidates in each District, can be made by voters with the aid of the lists sent by the Commissioner of Elections together with the polling cards. The voter should begin by identifying those candidates who should not be in Parliament. He should first draw a line across the names of those candidates who, to his knowledge, have proved to be incompetent, have a reputation for deriving income from drug-dealing, taking bribes to give government jobs and contracts, using foul language and violence, indulging in unfounded character assassination, being involved in an occupation or position that would plainly be in conflict with being an MP, and so on. A candidate facing criminal charges that the voter believes are genuine should have his name struck off. In carrying out this exercise, it is not incumbent upon the voter to look for irrefutable proof but to make a reasonable judgment on the information available to him.
The voter should also rule out the names of MPs who, as far as he can judge, have been sycophantic time-servers, interested only in making money for themselves, their relatives and their friends.
All responsible citizens abhor the pasting of posters, for four reasons. First, this practice is a violation of election laws. Second, there is no good reason why candidates should not limit themselves to newspaper, radio and TV advertisements, which could be designed to give some relevant bio-data and policy insights for the information of the voter. Third, poster advertising has a huge adverse environmental impact, including highly annoying visual pollution. Fourth, a massive proliferation of posters means that a vast amount of money would have been mobilised to print and paste them. Where would this money have come from? As one writer has pointed out, the cost of posters, cutouts and media advertising alone, in the case of certain candidates, would amount to more than the total income they could expect to earn as MPs over a 5-year period. Hence, those who plaster their likenesses and preference numbers indiscriminately on every vertical surface need to be viewed warily and blacklisted.
Where MPs have crossed over from one party to another, they may profess to have done so because their consciences drove them to it but their claims would have been more believable if they had resigned their seats instead, so as not to let down the voters who elected them. If you believe that they made their move for personal gain – such as to get the perks and privileges of being appointed a Minister or Deputy Minister and/or in order to avoid the consequences of their culpability in any corrupt deals exposed by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and/or to evade having to face criminal investigations and prosecution for some other misdemeanour, you should remove them from your list.
By now, your list will still have a large number of names of candidates about whom you know nothing at all and smaller number about whom you may have some useful information. Obviously, it would make no sense to vote for someone about whom you know nothing and, hence, one needs to cancel the names of all those who fall into that category. At the end of the exercise carried out so far, the voter will have managed to get shortlists of potentially acceptable candidates in a few of the party lists and, perhaps, one or two of the independent non-party lists. Now, comes the constructive part of choosing the best from these remaining names and identifying the party to which they belong. This process requires consideration of some related issues.
What is the value to be given to the declaration of assets and liabilities? Regarding the question of the declarations made to the Commissioner of Elections, we have to acknowledge that it is an ineffective measure at present because such submissions are not published openly and, more fundamentally, there is no statutory arrangement to have them checked for accuracy or to have the annual changes to the assets and liabilities reconciled with the (subsequently elected) candidates’ declared sources of tax-free, taxable and foreign income. If, however, a candidate makes his declaration voluntarily and allows it to be published on the Election Commissioner’s website, and undertakes, if elected, to update the information every year, he may be given a positive mark. Merely submitting a secret document of uncertain authenticity, which remains closed to public scrutiny, is a valueless exercise and need not be viewed in a particularly praiseworthy light.
Most ex-MPs who claim that they have not drawn their salaries or allowances over certain periods are probably indulging in this gimmick to divert attention away from their real moneymaking activities. It is only if the voter is satisfied, from whatever information that he has, that the claimed renunciation of salaries and allowances was not otherwise compensated by unlawful earnings, that he should consider giving the candidate any credit for his “sacrifice”.
If one were to ask any member of the public whether he believes that the typical MP has ever read the Constitution of Sri Lanka or whether the average MP has a sufficient knowledge of at least a few subjects such as finance, trade, public administration, environmental issues, information technology and so on, the chances are that the answer would be in the negative. Hence, in evaluating candidates who aspire to be re-elected or freshly elected as MPs, preference should be given to candidates with a degree or equivalent qualification in, say, accountancy, engineering, law or management, with at least a few years of business or professional experience.
Having gone through the procedure outlined above, you will find that the party or independent group lists will have differing numbers of names left. Logic demands that the party or group that has the largest number of good or tolerable candidates should be one the voter should back. This would be more rewarding than abstaining from voting or spoiling your vote or, worst of all, blindly voting for a party because of historic family loyalties or personal friendships. The selection of the final three preferred candidates from this party or group is a matter best left to the voter’s total discretion.