By Salma Yusuf
Salma Yusuf in conversation with Amitav Banerji, Director of Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat
Q: Could you share the background and details of how an interest in Commonwealth Election Observation of Sri Lanka’s Provincial Council Elections came about and a status update on preparations to date?
The Commonwealth Secretary-General received an invitation from the Commissioner of Elections of Sri Lanka to send observers to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections. Following this invitation, as is customary, the Secretary-General sent an assessment mission from the Secretariat to Sri Lanka, in order to consult the electoral authorities and the political and other stakeholders, as well as to explore the administrative arrangements for a potential observation exercise. The assessment mission has reported to the Secretary-General, on the basis of which preparations are being made to organise an observer presence.
Q: Would the observation be for all three provinces – North-Western, Central and Northern?
The Commonwealth has only been invited to observe the elections to the Northern Provincial Council.
Q: What would the Commonwealth Observer Group to Sri Lanka be reporting on as a result of its monitoring mission?
The basic remit of any Commonwealth observation exercise is to determine whether the election in question provides a credible reflection of the will of the electors, within the context of the legal framework for elections of the country in question. The observers are independent of the Secretary-General and of Commonwealth governments. They look at such factors as the credibility of the voters’ register, the ability of political parties and candidates to campaign freely, the degree of bias or otherwise in the media, the secrecy of the ballot and the transparency of the count and collation of results.
Q: Do we know the composition of the Observer Group to Sri Lanka and their respective backgrounds? If not, when will it be known? What are the criteria for selection of the Observer Group?
The composition will be made public once it is finalised. The group is likely to be led at high political level and to include a mix of disciplines, including electoral experts. It is also normal for team members to be drawn from different parts of the Commonwealth and to reflect a gender balance. The observers will be supported by professionals from the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Q: The Commonwealth Secretariat is known to provide two mechanisms for election processes: Commonwealth Observer Groups and Commonwealth Observer Teams. Which would be sent to Sri Lanka? What would you say is the distinction between the two?
The nomenclature is not that important. What is important is to note that the observers offer an independent assessment of the electoral process and that their report is shared with all stakeholders in Sri Lanka and eventually becomes a public document.
Q: An assessment team from the Commonwealth Secretariat was sent to Sri Lanka recently as preparatory work to election observation. What was the mandate of the team and their key findings?
A two-member assessment mission did indeed visit Sri Lanka from 1-8 August. I have already described the purpose of that mission. The team’s findings have informed the Secretary-General’s decision to send a Commonwealth observer mission, and would also inform the actual observation exercise. An appropriate Commonwealth observer mission is being constituted, which is expected to be deployed in the Northern Province about a week before the elections. The team will be briefed by relevant stakeholders, both in Colombo and Jaffna before deployment to the field.
Q: As standard practice, broad support from political parties and civil society are required for the dispatch of a team of election observers. What steps have been taken to determine this and could you share details with examples of the support or reservations received and from whom?
The assessment team met a range of stakeholders, both in Colombo and Jaffna. These included the principal political parties as well as civil society groups. It would not be proper to reveal the views of individual stakeholders but suffice it to say that there was broad-based and enthusiastic support for the presence of Commonwealth observers at the NPC Elections. The team also received cooperation and support from the Commissioner of Elections and his staff.
Q: What are the levels and extent of access that has been requested by the Commonwealth Secretariat for carrying out the mission and how important will this be to the success of the observation?
It is normal for Commonwealth observers to have unfettered access in order to carry out its remit and this has been assured by the electoral authorities.
Q: Has the terms of reference for the group been drafted, and if so, what are the key aspects?
The customary terms of reference for Commonwealth observers are to consider the various factors impinging on the credibility of the electoral process as a whole and to determine, in their own judgment, whether the elections have been conducted according to the standards for democratic elections to which the country in question has committed itself, with reference to national election-related legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth and other international commitments.
All our observer missions are expected to act impartially and independently. They have no executive role and their function is not to supervise but to observe the process as a whole and to form a judgment accordingly. The observers however, are also free to propose to the authorities concerned such action on institutional, procedural and other matters as would assist the holding of such elections.
The observers submit their report to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, who makes the report available to the concerned member government, to the country’s electoral authorities, to the leaders of political parties, and thereafter to all Commonwealth governments.
Q: Could you comment on the Independence of the group, in connection with the Harare Declaration?
As I said earlier, Commonwealth observer missions are independent. Observers do not represent the Secretary-General, nor do they represent the governments of the countries from which they are drawn. This independence is a critical requirement in that it enables them to comment collectively on the electoral process in a completely objective and dispassionate manner.
Q:Has there been a consideration thus far on the system of voter registration taking place in the country and what are your impressions of such a system?
The importance of a credible voters’ register in any election cannot be overstated. The Assessment Mission had discussions with a range of stakeholders, including the Commissioner of Elections, officials and representatives of political parties and civil society in this regard. It would be for the observers to make an assessment of the voter registration system.
Q: What would be the role and relationship of the domestic observers to the Commonwealth election monitoring process? Have the domestic observers been identified already, and if so, who are they? Ideally who do they represent and what purposes do they serve?
During the Assessment Mission, officials from the Secretariat met with two domestic observer groups who are widely known in the country, and have accreditation to observe domestic elections from the Office of the Commissioner of Elections. In any electoral context, Commonwealth observer teams stay in contact with domestic observer groups on issues of mutual interest.
Q:Commonwealth election observer missions are not of a supervisory or executive nature; what does it mean in practice?
It’s very simple. Commonwealth observers are there to observe an election, not to run it, or to interfere in any way in the conduct of it. They cannot tell a presiding officer or polling official what to do. They cannot give instructions to party agents, or to security personnel, or to voters. They simply observe. Of course, they record their observations and make recommendations in the report on how things could be done better, if they feel there is scope for improvement.
Q:What then is the role of the Commonwealth Election Observer mission?
I believe I have already clarified the role of our observers. Their principal aim is to study the entire electoral process (i.e. not just polling day) and provide a critical and constructive assessment of the degree of its credibility. They also offer suggestions on how to address perceived deficiencies in the future.
Q:Given that it does not hold a supervisory or executive mandate, how effective can such a mechanism be in terms of contributing to a free and fair election?
It is not for the Commonwealth, or for any other observers for that matter, to guarantee a free and fair election. However, the presence of Commonwealth observers has been seen generally to act as a confidence-building measure for the electorate and as a deterrent to malpractice.
Q: Given that election monitoring is a process rather than an event; could you explain how this philosophy is being applied by the Commonwealth Election Monitoring Programme to the Sri Lankan context?
You are right. Election observation is a process and not an event. That is why Commonwealth observers must take into account the entire electoral context, the electoral environment as a whole, including what happens well before Election Day. That is why the feedback provided by the assessment mission that visited Sri Lanka last month is important. That is also why the Commonwealth Secretariat’s regular monitoring of the political and electoral scene in Sri Lanka, and in the Northern Province in particular, is important.
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