US embassy cable - 04COLOMBO241

Sri Lanka's election process

Identifier: 04COLOMBO241
Wikileaks: View 04COLOMBO241 at
Origin: Embassy Colombo
Created: 2004-02-12 09:50:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 000241 
E.O. 12958:         DECL:  02/11/14 
SUBJECT:  Sri Lanka's election process 
Refs:  Colombo 226, and previous 
(U) Classified by Ambassador Jeffrey J. Lunstead. 
Reasons 1.5 (b,d). 
1.  (C) SUMMARY:  In light of President Kumaratunga's 
calling of early parliamentary elections to take place 
on April 2, Mission has put together the following 
primer on Sri Lanka's election process.  Flagging the 
many idiosyncrasies of the process, the primer focuses 
on four key areas:  the nomination process;  the 
campaign itself; election day; and the post-election 
timeframe.  END SUMMARY. 
The Nomination Process 
2.  (SBU) In light of President Chandrika Bandaranaike 
Kumaratunga's calling of early parliamentary elections 
to take place on April 2, Mission has put together the 
following primer on Sri Lanka's election process.  The 
first key aspect of the process involves confirming 
nominations for the ballot.  The President has set 
February 17-24 for nominations to be made.  During this 
timeframe, parties submit their official list of 
nominees who will be running in the election to the 
office of the Elections Commissioner and to the 
requisite local government agent in each of Sri Lanka's 
22 electoral districts. 
3.  (SBU) The tricky part of this process actually comes 
before the actual nominations are submitted, however. 
In this pre-nomination period, the parties work 
furiously to confirm and solidify alliances, so that 
they can run joint campaigns, and appear on the ballot 
under one symbol and one coalition name.  The governing 
United National Party (UNP), for example, is negotiating 
with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) on whether the 
SLMC remains willing to contest under the "United 
National Front" (UNF) banner that was used during the 
last elections which took place in December 2001.  At 
the same time, President Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom 
Party (SLFP) is working with the radical Janatha 
Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to develop their joint 
nomination lists.  The SLFP and the JVP recently 
concluded an electoral alliance called the "United 
People's Freedom Alliance" (UPFA), and seem set to put 
together a joint nomination plank shortly.  They will 
likely be joined by some small political parties, 
particularly some of the anti-Liberation Tigers of Tamil 
Eelam (LTTE) Tamil parties.  (Note:  The President's 
long-standing coalition grouping, the People's Alliance, 
will not be on the ballot this election, from what 
Mission understands.) 
The Campaign 
4.  (C) Sri Lankan election campaigns are an "anything 
goes" type of affair usually involving much violence. 
The Elections Commissioner's Office monitors the 
campaign to ensure that it is free and fair.  This 
office, however, is not considered to be very effective 
and in the past has been subject to political influence. 
In a change, current Commissioner Dayanda Dissanayake is 
relatively impartial, but -- sticking with the tradition 
of his office -- he is not considered effective.  He was 
close to President Kumaratunga, but he reportedly became 
upset at her when she played a role in a court-ordered 
injunction preventing him from retiring until an 
independent Elections Commission starts operating (i.e., 
Dissanayake is essentially being forced to remain in a 
job he no longer wants to be part of!).  (Note:  FYI: 
In a bid to improve governance, Parliament passed a bill 
in 2001 establishing an independent Elections 
Commission, among several other independent bodies.  The 
commission, however, has not yet been formed in large 
part because the President has refused to confirm the 
Constitutional Commission's choice to head the Election 
Commission.)  There are no campaign funding restrictions 
in place in Sri Lanka and parties can spend as much as 
they raise.  If there are accusations of bribery, the 
Elections Commissioner can step in. 
5.  (SBU) With respect to violence, over 50 people were 
killed in the December 2001 parliamentary campaign, over 
25 in the October 2000 parliamentary elections, and 
almost 50 in the December 1999 presidential election 
campaign.  In general, Sri Lankan police are extremely 
ineffective in stopping the violence and apprehending 
those responsible.  That said, there were some arrests 
for violence committed during the last elections, 
including that of Senior SLFP MP Anuruddha Ratwatte, a 
relative of Kumaratunga's, who is currently on trial for 
the killings of 10 Muslims on election day, December 5, 
6.  (U) Sri Lanka allows local organizations to 
"monitor" election campaigns and ballot counting. 
Foreign organizations are also allowed to "observe" the 
elections.  The Commonwealth and the European Union sent 
large teams to observe the December 2001 elections. 
Election Day 
7.  (SBU) Parliamentary elections will be held from 7 AM 
to 4 PM on Friday, April 2.  On each ballot, the voter 
must first select the party of his or her choice, then 
indicate a "preference" for three individual candidates. 
There are three ways a candidate can win a seat in 
-- Under Sri Lanka's complex, almost byzantine 
proportional representation (PR) system, each party is 
allocated a certain number of seats based on the total 
number of votes it receives in an electoral district. 
Based on the voters' "preferences," candidates are then 
rank ordered by the parties and, if they meet the cut of 
how many seats that party has won in the district, they 
win a seat in Parliament. 
-- In addition to the PR seats, in each of Sri Lanka's 
22 electoral districts, the party that receives the most 
votes is allotted at least one bonus seat.  Combined, 
the PR seats and the bonus seats fill 196 seats in the 
225-member Parliament. 
-- The remaining 29 seats are filled from the "National 
List," which is determined, proportionally, by the 
national percentage of votes that each party wins.  For 
example, if the UNP wins 60 percent of the votes 
nationally, it will be allocated 17 seats -- 60 percent 
of 29 National List seats.  Each party contesting 
elections must submit a 29-candidate National List to 
the Election Commissioner during the February 17-24 
nomination period.  The exact allotment of National List 
seats per party is finalized in the days immediately 
following the elections. 
8.  (SBU) Aside from the high-level of violence that 
afflicts the country on election day, another serious 
problem almost always crops up.  This concerns voters 
(invariably Tamils) from areas controlled by the LTTE, 
who must travel, sometimes long distances, to vote at 
polling sites in government-controlled areas.  In the 
past, it has often been difficult for these voters to 
cast their ballots.  During the December 2001 
parliamentary elections, for example, the Sri Lankan 
military, on the orders of President Kumaratunga's then- 
government, prevented thousands of Tamil voters from 
entering government-controlled regions on suspicion that 
the LTTE was planning a terrorist attack.  The Sri 
Lankan Supreme Court in 2003 ruled the GSL's actions a 
violation of the fundamental rights of those affected, 
and fined the government and cited several officials. 
Elections Commissioner Dissanayake, one of those cited 
by the Supreme Court, has promised that there will not 
be a repetition of what happened in December 2001 during 
this election. 
9.  (U) Turnout usually is quite high in Sri Lankan 
elections, hovering at about 70 percent.  Given that the 
April 2004 elections will be the fourth national 
election in less than five years (and the fact that the 
calling of elections at this time may well not be a 
popular decision), turnout could possibly be lower this 
time around.  (Note:  There are an estimated 13.8 
million voters in Sri Lanka, including over 400,000 
additional voters on the rolls this time around.) 
The Post-Election Timeframe 
10.  (SBU) Due to the hand counting of ballots, spread 
over hundreds of village-level precincts, the tallies 
from the April 2 election -- based on past experience -- 
will slowly trickle in.  Results, which will only be 
clear a day or two following election day, are then 
certified by the Elections Commissioner.  If a party or 
coalition of parties has a clear majority, a government 
could quickly be formed, and a list of ministers -- 
including a Prime Minister -- sworn in by the President. 
11.  (C) There are several existing coalitions that 
could emerge with a clear majority after April 2.  If 
the SLFP-JVP alliance wins the majority vote, then -- as 
noted above -- the process of swearing-in ministers 
should be fairly easy as the President will immediately 
accept the alliance's government.  If the UNP and its 
coalition, however, again wins the majority as it did in 
December 2001, the process could be more tricky.  After 
the December 2001 parliamentary elections, for example, 
President Kumaratunga reserved the right to reject the 
UNF's slate of ministers in toto, or at least some of 
them.  She did not reject any in the end.  If the UNP 
wins on April 2, there is a very real chance that the 
President may reject some of its ministerial choices 
this time around given cohabitation tensions.  In any 
case, Parliament is scheduled to convene on April 23. 
If there is a "hung" Parliament with no party forming 
the majority, the impasse could continue for weeks as 
parties try to come to terms with each other in order to 
form a sustainable government. 
12.  (U) Minimize considered. 

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