As in the past few years, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) appeals to all voters to use their ballot to good purpose and not let their voice be rendered silent by their failing to vote. The question of which party and which candidates to vote for needs more careful consideration than in the past.
The voting procedure given in the current Constitution is, first, to mark your selection of a party and then mark your choice of one, two or three candidates from that party. Given below are some points that may be helpful to be kept in mind before making the said selection and choices.
Whilst the date for the filing of nominations for the forthcoming Parliamentary elections was approaching, the sporadic suggestions made through the media over the years by members of the public calling upon political parties to desist from sponsoring undesirable types of candidates began to increase in frequency and intensity. This year, under pressure from the public and PAFFREL, fourteen political leaders were persuaded to sign the so-called “March 12th Declaration” setting out eight criteria for determining the suitability of candidates for elected office. Of these, Criteria 1 and 2 refer to the disqualification of those who have been convicted of some offence, Criteria 3 to 6 describe the kind of activities in which the candidates should not have engaged themselves. Criterion 7 requires them to have a close relationship with the electorate that they wish to represent, and Criterion 8 requires that the parties should provide adequate opportunities for women and youth.
It is only in the cases of a few individuals against whom the police have so far taken legal action for serious offences and one or two others who were widely perceived by the public to be involved in serious lawbreaking activities that political parties have complied with the spirit of the March 12th Declaration by denying them nominations. Now that electioneering is under way with the nominations, good and bad, made by the parties, it is time to see what the voters themselves can do to make the best of the situation as it exists.
It is, of course, important that one has to study the manifestos of the various parties and gain a historic view of how many of them have actually honoured their own manifestos in the past. The abolition of the executive presidency was promised in several successive elections but nothing was done about it. On the contrary, the introduction of the foul 18th Amendment turned a bad situation into a disaster. The enactment of the Right to Information Act has been promised so many times and dishonoured as many times that election promises in this regard should be taken with large doses of salt before selecting the party to vote for by what it says in its manifesto. Too many undertakings have too often ended in default.
An equally important aspect in comparing manifestos is to see whether the party in question has a good vision and credible long term plans for implementation of the individual elements of its vision. For example, it must concentrate on improving education to suit not only academic goals but also employment-oriented curricula of the widest possible scope, not limited to giving state-sector jobs to those who would not be able to secure employment in the private sector. Such a manifesto would be far superior to one which only concentrates on promising wage increases, subsidies and other “freebies” that are not related to increased outputs. Whatever the manifesto, it must be designed to help the country to grow economically in a way where it is the improvement in productivity that would lead to higher wages and benefits.
The public should have no difficulty in identifying whether any party list includes the names of individuals with unsatisfactory backgrounds who should never have been given nominations. If, therefore, the preferred political party of a voter has sponsored persons with well-known criminal connections or occupations, we hope that the voter will give their approval to only the other lesser known candidates in the list who have good records.
Where the list of nominations of one’s preferred party contains too many unsavoury characters, the extreme step of voting for another party or spoiling one’s vote may be only way out. What we suggest is that, well in advance of the polling day, voters should try to mark the names of up to three persons of good repute in each of at least three party lists and then select the party with the best combination of three candidates and make that party the party of their choice.
To be fair, one has to appreciate that those who have held executive powers in a government would have had ample opportunity to use or misuse such powers and would thereby have earned either a good name or a bad one, whereas those who were in the opposition at the time would have only been able to criticise the government’s performance but would not have had occasion to engage in the abuse of power, nepotism, bribery, corruption, misappropriation of State resources etc. In other words, it is easier to separate tolerably good candidates from undesirable ones from among those who have been in power than to do so from among those whose main function has been to act as critics. This factor should be kept in mind when comparing the relative merits of a candidate who has exercised power and with one who has not.
Of those whose names are now on the various parties’ lists, the obvious candidates who qualify for summary rejection by voters are those who have a poor reputation and are currently charged with an offence in a court of law, irrespective of the outcome of the legal proceedings. Voters are entitled to adopt this line of thinking on the grounds that only about 4% of prosecutions by the police end up with a conviction in a court of law, mostly due to shortcomings in the preparation of the prosecution’s case or by the death or bribing of witnesses. In other words, solely for the purposes of evaluating the suitability of candidates, voters may legitimately resolve to rely on their own perception of the candidates’ character and capability.
The Elections Commissioner (“EC”) has now firmly insisted that candidates must furnish their Assets & Liabilities Declarations well before the date set for the elections. If the EC publishes the names of those who have complied, classified by district and party, voters will be able to spurn those others who have not submitted their declarations.
Educational qualifications, professional qualifications and work experience are of primary importance. Despite it being argued that D.S.Senanayake had completed only the 7th or 8th Standard but was a highly regarded Prime Minister, it cannot be soundly maintained that this level of education is adequate in this age. There are two principal reasons for saying so. One, with the huge expansion in the breadth and depth of educational facilities that has taken place since 1948, it would be absurd to set standards for MPs that are lower than those required for a clerical assistant in a government department. Two, the complexities of all aspects of government have multiplied many-fold in comparison with what was the case 60 years ago. It now needs not only a good level of academic achievement but also a reasonable level of professional experience in the many fields of relevance to work out policies on matters of national importance. Therefore, the work experience of persons coming into Parliament should not only be in a specialised field but should also require a respectable level of practical knowledge of at least law, economics and management. Hence, voters should favour candidates with a broad academic and work background.
A person having a reliable record of social service should be given special consideration.