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ANFREL commends free and fair election

Local News from Sri Lanka: Yesterday, the international election observer groups congratulated the people of Sri Lanka on the successful largely peaceful and orderly conduct of the ‘ Presidential Election 2019.’Launching the interim report of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), the only Asian international non-governmental organization accredited to the November 16 polls by the Election Commission, ANFREL Head of Mis.

Release: The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) congratulates the people of Sri Lanka on the successful, largely peaceful and orderly conduct of the 2019 Presidential Election held on November 16. The Election Commission of Sri Lanka (EC) needs to be particularly acknowledged for delivering on its constitutional mandate to ensure an electoral process that has drawn the confidence of people and political parties alike. The success of election was resounded by the acceptance of the election outcome by all contesting parties in a welcome demonstration of democratic maturity, yielding a quick and swift transfer of power.

Through the deployment of international election observers throughout the country, the mission witnessed how Sri Lankan people emerged and participated in deciding the future of their country. This report presents ANFREL’s preliminary assessment of the electoral process, which was crafted with internationally-recognized democratic election norms and principles in mind.

The 83.73%* turnout is the reinforcement of public faith in the ballot and the prospects of change it can bring. Therefore, it is necessary that all issues both observers and voters saw emerging from the process be addressed immediately in order to continue and strengthen public trust in elections.

Despite some procedural inadequacies such as insufficient safeguards to protect voters’ secrecy, generally unclear definition of the role of police officials inside polling stations and differential understanding of election officials to handle tendered and spoilt ballots, the voting process on Election Day ran smoothly. However, the smoothness of the process was not felt by all voters. Almost all polling stations observed by ANFREL observers posed an accessibility challenge to persons with disability (PWD), especially wheelchair-bound and elderly voters. ANFREL recommends to the EC, relevant government agencies and civil society organizations (CSOs) to pay immediate attention to creating a more enabling environment for particularly elderly voters and PWDs.

The campaign environment was dominated by only four major candidates in a field that supposedly had 35 contestants. Such dominance was further aggravated by the incessant and uncontrolled spending of several candidates in both traditional and social media. Given the lack of legal framework to control campaign spending, the playing field is heavily tilted towards moneyed candidates. ANFREL recommends to the Sri Lankan Parliament to consider an immediate passage of campaign finance laws to make elections more inclusive to candidates representing diverse income groups. In addition, the EC may also consider measures to prevent candidates supporting the candidacy of their opponents, which Sri Lanka has seen in this election.

The campaign period was dominated by traditional and non-traditional campaigning by candidates. The media, both public and private, were perceived to have been biased by most stakeholders in the elections. Such biases should be avoided in future elections ideally through an initiative of media entities to police themselves and their members to ensure the fulfillment of the right of voters to have access to unbiased information about election contestants and their manifestos.

The postal voting process was also observed to be peaceful and orderly. This exercise can be further improved by expanding the privilege to similarly situated government employees and private individuals. In addition, the location of these postal voting stations should be assessed further to make it more conducive to voters who are eligible to avail this facility.

Sri Lankan voters seem to possess the basic knowledge about elections but largely unaware of the complexity as well as advantages of preferential voting. A majority of them only know how to vote for one candidate. Such basic knowledge deprives voters the opportunity to vote for more than one candidate, which they have been legally given. Hence, the EC should strive to provide more comprehensive voter education to the Sri Lankan voters. Local election organizations should also take it to task to provide voter education to people in the peripheries, and not just focus in urban areas.

Although the November 16 Presidential Election hallmarks the conduct of future elections in the country, further improvements can be made to make the electoral process more inclusive, transparent and accountable to inspire even greater confidence of diverse communities that inhabit the island.

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