Commonwealth Observer Mission releases report on Northern Provincial Election

Northern  Province     Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has issued the report of the Commonwealth Observer Mission to Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council Election, held on 21 September 2013.

The Secretary-General described the election as an historic election for Sri Lanka, and one which he said the Commonwealth was pleased to have been invited to observe.

Mr Sharma said Commonwealth observers had found the conduct of election day itself to be impressive.

“Voters turned out in large numbers to exercise their franchise, and electoral officials conducted polling with dedication and diligence,” he said. “The post-results environment was also peaceful and for this, we commend the leadership of participating political parties.”

The Secretary-General, however, drew attention to the Commonwealth Observer Mission’s concerns about the pre-electoral environment. He said: “I support the Observer Mission’s view that an election is a process and not an event. The pre-electoral environment is vital to its integrity and credibility.”

Mr Sharma also noted the Observer Mission’s call for the establishment of an independent electoral commission, which is a widely valued Commonwealth good practice. The Secretary-General said: “We have an ongoing programme of work with Sri Lanka. We stand ready to assist Sri Lanka in strengthening its electoral framework as well.

“I echo the sentiments of the Commonwealth Observer Mission in hoping that this historic election marks a step forward in the harmonious development of the Northern Province and of Sri Lanka as a whole.”

The Commonwealth Observation Mission was in Sri Lanka from 14 – 28 September. Its mandate required its members to observe and consider all aspects of the electoral process and to assess compliance with the standards for democratic elections reflected in national election-related legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth as well as other international commitments. The Observer Mission met with a range of stakeholders and on election day its members were present in the five districts of the Northern Province.

Some of the Key Findings in the report are:

  • The fundamental freedoms of association and assembly were constrained in the pre-electoral period. That opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as voters at large, faced instances of intimidation and harassment, and that the freedom to hold campaign meetings and openly interact with the electorate was restricted. We particularly noted the reports of attacks on one of the few female candidates in this campaign. 
  • The role of the military in the electoral campaign was consistently described to the mission as a significant obstacle to a credible electoral process. 
  • The media environment appeared constricted. It was reported to us that several media outlets were self censoring when it came to in depth or sensitive reporting on the elections. The mission noted that in the run up to the elections and on Election Day, important on line and electronic media sources were inaccessible.
  • Numerous reports of misuse of public resources, corroborated by the Commissioner of Elections and in dependent domestic observers, including misuse of government personnel, vehicles and facilities for partisan political activity, are of concern.
  • The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 2010, undermined the constitutional and legal framework for a credible and competitive election. In particular, the provision for an independent Electoral Commission has been negated.
  •  There was inadequate enforcement of existing laws that provide for a level playing field for all candidates, such as the use of state resources in electoral campaigns. 
  • The high number of rejected ballots, at 7.5%, cast in the elections.
  • Domestic observers  not given access to the count, which is a key stage of the electoral process.
  • To deter hate speech.

 The report commends the Commissioner of Elections and his staff across the Northern Province, who approached their duties with diligence and dedication. The administrative arrangements for voting and counting in this election were impressive. Election Day itself was largely peaceful, with only isolated incidents reported. “Overall we are impressed by the determination and resilience of voters to exercise their franchise in the context of a compromised electoral environment” it reports.

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