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This week, Sri Lanka will have a new, or perhaps not-so-new, Parliament. Given the unusual circumstances in which the elections will be held this time, it is useful to look at the impact of the global pandemic on the elections and how it has changed campaigning, voting, and election law violations.

Public Health and Safety

Although the government took swift and stringent measures to contain the spread of the Coronavirus ahead of other South Asian countries, this fervour has waned in light of the upcoming election. Considering the health risk of conducting a national election that relies primarily on the mobilisation of all citizens, health and safety regulations should naturally be a top – if not the top – consideration of the government. Yet there was a serious delay of six weeks in gazetting the health guidelines, which were issued by the Director General of Health Services as early as June 3.

It was following significant pressure by the Election Commission and other election monitoring organisations such as the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and PAFFREL that the Gazette Notification on Health Guidelines for the General Election was issued on July 17, just over two weeks prior to the election date and over a month into election campaigning. Even so, the Gazette omits a number of provisions of the original guidelines, for example, allowing up to 300 people to participate at campaign rallies or up to 500 people for events attended by party leaders.

Compliance with Health Guidelines

The government does not seem to be alone in its disinterest towards safety precautions during this period of campaigning.

In their Field Visit Report[1], CMEV noted that in every electoral district visited, the commitment of candidates and organisers to comply with health guidelines was negligible, with meetings and door-to-door campaigns operating with minimal precautions and most party supporters working at campaign offices seen not even wearing face masks. PHIs island wide have complained that not only are candidates failing to comply but at times do not even inform PHIs about campaign meetings.

Election officers were not able to take legal action against blatant non-compliance as the guidelines were, to the convenience of campaigners, not gazetted by then.

How Has Campaigning Changed?

Candidates and organisers in the context of Covid-19 have their own set of challenges and grievances.

According to the report by CMEV, many pointed out the difficulty of communicating their election number without posters or cut-outs, the challenge of reaching more voters without large meetings, and the higher cost of organising more pocket meetings and door-to-door campaigns. Candidates also claimed that often the police act with prejudice when implementing election laws such as removing posters and cut outs or granting approvals for campaign offices, and some officers blatantly flouting election laws by actively participating in campaigning.

Could the pandemic, rather than restricting overall campaigning, be intensifying political biases and discrimination under the opportune guise of implementing health guidelines?

The Increasing Influence of Media

In a context of restricted social contact, candidates are more reliant on media advertising. This is indeed good news for media agencies who have full discretion when deciding how much airtime or advertising space they want to sell to which candidate and at what price. An analysis by Verite Research highlighted the massive hike in prices for political advertisements on TV, radio and newspapers in contrast to commercial advertisements, raising concerns about financial exploitation of candidates by media companies. Price hikes disadvantage candidates who do not have strong financial backing, and especially those who do not belong to the main parties, although certainly needing more visibility. Considering also the political biases of media companies some parties, on the issue of media advertising, are bound to be more equal than others.

The obvious solution to this would be to issue media guidelines that hold media companies accountable. While the guidelines issued by the Election Commission do exist, there is neither incentive to comply nor the fear of facing penalties without translating the guidelines into legislature. Therefore, candidates with enough financial capital to prop up their presence and visibility through paid advertisements and those favoured by media agencies will have an unfair advantage, with no regulations to keep either the media or candidates in check.

The Trouble with Social Media

This issue extends to campaigning on social media, which seems a viable option to approaching mass audiences without the physical proximity of large rallies. Yet, the outdated Parliament Election Act No.1 of 1981 includes no regulations pertaining to social media campaigning or spending limits. Therefore, similar to traditional media, candidates who spend more get more reach, making public reach and popularity ultimately about those who have the most money.

While Facebook assures the Election Commission of cooperation in addressing election law violations and hate speech campaigns on its platform, one can only depend on its discretion when it comes to taking prompt and meaningful action. Addressing reports of hate speech/ misinformation currently relies on a long drawn out process that involves election monitoring groups such as CMEV and PAFFREL reporting violations to the Election Commission, who in turn reports to Facebook, who then has full discretion to act or not act on the information it receives.

In the context of the pandemic, how effective might this process be for fake news/ rumours that are likely to circulate rapidly, inciting fear and possibly impacting voter turnout?

Experience from past elections, according to the CMEV, shows that delayed action is meaningless, especially when taking down content during crucial periods such as the two-day cooling period before the election. While campaigning and advertising is not permitted during this time, if candidates do post ads or promotional material on social media, delayed action by a day or two is meaningless in a window of 48 hours.

Election law violations and election related violence

Considering the existing social restrictions and public fears of contracting the coronavirus, election related violence has been less than usual. However there were incidents of abuses, intimidations, threats and overall violent and discriminatory discourse recorded. As of August 2, 6483 complaints were filed in relation to the election, 24 complaints of assault during political activities were made as of July 24 and according to the police, as of July 20, 222 persons have been arrested for election law violation including three election candidates.

Social media is a platform where hate speech and violent discourse proliferates and where discriminatory campaigns are deliberately carried out. An awareness campaign carried out by Groundviews and CMEV flags up instances of hate speech and discriminatory language targeting minorities during political campaigning in the lead up to the election.

Election Costs

According to Manjula Gajanayake, the National Coordinator for CMEV, while steps have been taken to digitalise some election related activities, many routine processes will still be carried out at the ground level as usual. He stated that the pandemic will impact election costs with the need to provide health and safety equipment such as masks, gloves and face shields for all election staff and monitors and sanitiser for all voters.

Although the numbers infected by Covid-19 are on the rise in Sri Lanka, both the government and the public seem to have taken a step back in the implementation of and compliance with health guidelines. The changes to election campaigning due to Covid-19 work to the advantage of those who can pay for media visibility and the higher costs of hosting pocket meetings and door-to-door campaigns. The pandemic, rather than creating an even playing field or restricting overall campaigning for all candidates, has only highlighted existing disparities between well financed, influential candidates and fresh faces trying to penetrate the political arena. While expectations this time might be to experience a unique election held under uncertain circumstances, it seems the impact of the pandemic has been to prepare us for an unusual election with the usual results.

[1] Field Visit Report – Election Situation Analysis as of 15th July 2020, Parliamentary General Election 2020, Centre for Monitoring Election Violence