Colombo, Elections, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The Commissioner of Elections: A close friend’s critique

One evening we boisterously debated on the conduct of the last Presidential Elections. Some blamed the President and supporters, some Ranil Wickremesinghe / Sarath Fonseka and supporters, R. Samapanthan and Somawansa Ameresinghe and others posthumously bashed Velupillai Prabhakaran for the “sin” he committed in November 2005. Also, Dayananda Dishanayake received enough criticism.

Dayanada Dishanyake whom we call ‘Dissa Malli’ is my close friend for 40 years. He was DRO Laggala-Pallegama where he brushed with death during the 1971- JVP insurgency. JVP came for him but he was with me in Matale. The vociferous JVP criticism of him now may be ‘delayed revenge’!  He was DRO- Haputale when I invited him to join the Elections Department to facilitate my release to be the Additional GA, Polonnaruwa. Like when vows are made to God Kataragama we had to give a “rupeta rupe” (“image to image”) to the Commissioner of Elections (CE) when leaving the Department. Dishanayake was the “rupe” I offered!

After the debate I went to sleep with reeling thoughts and boggled mind as to who deserved these blames.

Friends! Now I switch off from present and revert 40 years on my memory lane.

I am inside the Batticaloa fortress in the Election Office, where I was the Assistant Commissioner of Parliamentary Elections (ACPE) in 1970. I see familiar faces like Jeevaratnam, my Election Clerk, Thambipillai and Seller, two clerks in my Election Office, young Dawn Balthazar the Sinhala typist.

The chubby peon Nallathamy brings me a letter from the CE.

Office of the Commissioner of Elections

33, Horton Place
PO Box No 814


Dear Fernando,

Parliamentary General Elections: 2010

Parliament has been dissolved today. Nominations have been fixed for 26.2. 2010 and polling will be 8-4-2010. Now we really have to get down to another deadly election.

It is comforting that with our recent experiences we can surmise what would happen at the forthcoming election. Nevertheless, the greater part of the risk lies ahead. Unfortunately, some of the risky challenges are already looped by potential candidates, their security personnel and underworld thugs.

At the nomination, tippexed Nomination Papers will not be submitted by District Leaders, unless political parties have not learnt from past lessons. They might have and hence we need not worry.

Lower level of supervision of poll cards distribution will ensure postal peons delivering them to grabbers; not the intended recipients. Since the grabbers love “such intended recipients” not voting, minimum supervision of the poll card operation is appreciated.

Security of ballot papers need no planning as it could prevent impersonation. But it is necessary to secure ballot papers after counting because finding them in drains or cemeteries may provoke Opposition politicians to bother the Venerable Mahanayake Theros who do not have legal provision to intervene.

Like in 2005 some may complain of not registering their names. Try to find legal and procedural excuses if your officers have deleted names of eligible electors. Whether the public knew or not there is legal remedy for these issues through courts.

Ensure that the postal voting operation is hijacked by politically motivated Military/ Police or other state / corporation officers, insisting marked ballot papers be shown to them to satisfy that their choices have gained preferences, in the absence of polling agents who will be chased away. If everything is politicized and criminalized why not the election process?

You will appreciate that we in the Department of Elections should not obstruct those motivated public servants obtaining official perks, such as double and treble promotions when their supportive candidates form a government. Please remember the Election Law prohibits favoring “treatment,” but not the “national tradition of treating.”

Preparing ballot boxes that can be pilfered, transport arrangements  ensuring “plundering of ballot boxes” on way to your office after the poll, are the outputs expected by politicians, orchestrated by the defeated only after polls.

Making counting arrangements to permit government politicians access to counting halls along with their thugs or bodyguards to terrify opposing counting agents in a more transparent manner than at the Presidential Election will be worked out by political parties. “Computer jilmarting” which is unknown to me has to be studied by you to take precautions. As many pro-government politicians declare, all their actions are to safeguard Sri Lanka’s sovereignty – a pious act against international conspiracies. Therefore, I do not understand how we could oppose such.

After elections, ensure that the result sheets from sub counting halls are not shared with monitors who club with preferred political parties. Law does not provide for sharing them with Monitors and everything we do should be legal.

Since violent incidents inside Counting Halls during the Presidential Election have not been reported in time to the Police, Returning Officers, Monitors, you or me by the affected, in comparison to the purported numbers of cases, I will request Party Secretaries to hereafter take appropriate timely action, rather than to cry for spilt milk.

Everything done illegally by government politicians for their electoral benefit should be appreciated and hence meticulous planning, checking and rechecking on work and promoting positive arrangements obstructing them must be deprecated. Switch off your thinking and planning buds right now and be nonchalant.

Remember that we will be in very close touch with politicians and their retinues, the colleagues in the Public Service and the public who opted to be extremely politicized. Lack of application of the election laws and constitutional provisions, eroded tact, roughness to anti-establishment, extra fairness to the powers that may be, partiality to those who will in your opinion come to power will be important ingredients in conducting a good election in your District.

I need not ask you to do your best to me and the Department or to the election process because I know you will always give your best to the persons who threaten you the worst, because you love your family more than democratic rights and Rule of Law.

If at anytime you require any advice or assistance from the Head Office please get in touch immediately, if you know where I am or my deputies are. Telephones are faster than letters. Some web site operators knew better than I did where I was on the day of the last presidential election. In case if you cannot contact me on my mobile or land lines, please call such web administrator and ask for my contacts. They should help.

With kind regards and best wishes to see you in office after the election, not warded in a hospital, permitting you to enjoy the Sinhala/ Hindu New Year with the stuff that will be filling all CWE retail stores in the island, because this is election time.

Commissioner of Elections

Having read the letter I was exasperated. This cannot be from EF Dias Abeysinghe. Issuing date was questionable though the address was his. There was no signature to find the authencity of the letter.  The letter was demanding my succumbing to all election ills. It was not highlighting the independent, legal and unimpeded managerial responsibilities of an election. Usually his advice was as coming from a father to son, but this appeared to be underworld thug’s origination. CE was a gentleman to the teeth. Someone has invariably pulled my leg.

I shouted “No, this is not from him, I am deceived.” and was awake.

I switched back to the present. I was convinced I had dreamt due to my sub-conscious struggling with the arguments during the debate. Why did the debate create an indelible mark to bother me with dreams? I realized the reason within minutes. It was due to a signed true letter I received from the CE in 1970. I fished it from my bundles of old documents after a few days. It read:

My No: PE.3/6/21

Office of the Commissioner of Elections
33, Horton Place
PO Box No 814
Colombo 7.


Dear Fernando,

Parliamentary General Elections: 1970

Parliament has been dissolved today. Nominations have been fixed for 23.4. 70. and polling will be 27.5.70. Now we really have to get down to it.

It is comforting to feel that as a result of our forward planning quite a fair amount of preliminary work has been done already; but the greater part of the actual exercise now lies ahead. Nomination Day arrangements, careful checking of the writing of poll cards, security of ballot papers, indelible ink, clippers, registers etc the many aspects of the postal voting operation, checking on ballot boxes, transport arrangements, counting arrangements, etc. all remain to be worked out. Nothing can be overlooked in an election, so meticulous planning, checking and rechecking on work and arrangements, etc. are essential. Go ahead with your thinking and planning right now.

Remember too that we will be in very close touch with politicians, colleagues in the Public Service and the public in the months ahead. Knowledge of your work, your tact, good humour and attitudes of fairness and neutrality will be important ingredients in making a good election in your District.

I do not need to ask you to do your best because I know you will always give of it. If at anytime you require any advice or assistance from anyone in the Head Office please do get in touch at once- telephones are faster than letters.

With kind regards and best wishes,

Yours sincerely

Sgd: E.F. Dias Abeysinghe

I wonder whether the above letter suits the present day ACPEs if Dishanayake addresses them. The standards among politicians, public servants, the Department, Police, public etc have deteriorated so much he cannot send a sobered informal letter like the immediately above. It will be worse with his successors. This is the reality.

This article is not to make humor out of Dishanayake. This is a heartaching lament against deterioration and resulting demoralization that had taken place in the conduct of elections. It is not a reflection on the incumbent government politicians alone. Other politicians were similarly culpable when they were in power. All politicians will do it in the future too. This is not lamenting for the past and present; it is lamenting for the future too.

Late EF Dias Abeysinghe would have cried his eye balls out had he seen the plight of Dishanayake. We as old Election Department hands cry for Dishanayake and he too must be crying for his pathetic situation. His wife Soma may be knowing it best. Only the wrong doers and cartoonists must be enjoying Dishanayake’s shame, ridicule, and heartburn, publicly accepted tension and planned immediate retirement and regaining mental comfort to withdraw his immediate retirement, desperation and helplessness. We do not.

I only hope the public servants from Dishanayake downwards who carry forward the election process would stand by the Rule of Law and not uphold wrong doers and crown those who erode rights, legality, just and democracy. Dishanayake has a great opportunity to perform in this last attempt and permanently retire, keeping his head above shoulders. He can say “Enough is enough” and do it correctly.

If he does not, the public may yell “Enough is enough of you Dayananda Dishanayake” and his departure will be termed as a good turn for democracy. To avoid such, others – i.e. electors, politicians, law and order enforcing authorities, monitors – have to contribute to his success.

Being critical is easy, but CE’s job is not an easy one man show.


[Editors note: Austin Fernando was a former Secretary of Defence in Sri Lanka. An interview with Austin about his published memoirs can be viewed here.]