The tussle for the country’s top job, the Executive Presidency began in earnest on Monday, with the acceptance of nomination papers. A record number of thirty-five candidates are in the fray.
Democracy being defined as government of the people by the people for the people, we should be rejoicing. However, does merely having more candidates on the ballot paper fostering democracy or in fact, hindering it?
When the country’s first presidential election was held in 1982, there were six contestants. All of them- J. R. Jayewardene, Hector Kobbekaduwa, Rohana Wijeweera, Colvin R. de Silva, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Kumar Ponnambalam- were the leaders of their political parties and were politicians with a national reputation.
At the next election in 1989, with the nation in the throes of twin insurrections in the North and South, there were only three contestants: Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sirima Bandaranaike and Ossie Abegunasekara. The 1994 contest also saw six contestants, but for the first time two independents, maverick politicians Hudson Samarasinghe and A.J. Ranasinghe contested.
Since then, the theme has been ‘more the merrier’. The 1999 election was the first indication that the floodgates had opened, with 13 aspirants, followed by another 13 candidates in 2005, 22 candidates in 2010 and another 19 candidates at the last elections in 2015.
The ‘growth’ in the number of candidates from 19 in 2015 to 35 this year is almost twofold. It should be concerning because we could well have more than 50 candidates at the next Presidential election in 2024!
There are other reasons why voters should be alert. Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has already lamented the extra cost of this election. The ballot paper is expected to be over two feet long. Specially made ballot boxes would be required to accommodate it. The results of the election are also likely to take longer to be delivered because counting becomes more complicated with more candidates contesting.
Chairman Deshapriya has said that the Commission expected to spend about four billion rupees for this election but the cost is now likely to be about five billion rupees because of the increasing number of candidates. That amounts to nearly Rs. 250 for every man, woman and child in the country, or about Rs 300 for every registered voter.
Perusing the lists of candidates for each election provides some interesting insights. None of the independent candidates of the Presidential elections have ever obtained even one per cent of the vote. In 2015, all of the ‘also rans’ put together polled 1.1 per cent of the vote.
Then, there are the ‘usual suspects’: the names of A.S.P. Liyanage, Duminda Nagamuwa, Baththaramulle Seelarathana thera and Sirithunga Jayasuriya may not figure in a national political discourse but they contested the Presidential election in 2015 and are doing so again in 2019. Liyanage, Seelarathana thera and Jayasuriya also contested in 2010!
The question as to why there are so many candidates has several answers. One possibility is that there are candidates ‘planted’ by political parties to split the votes of their opponents. This was taken to a ridiculous extent in 2015 when a candidate with a slight physical resemblance to President Maithripala Sirisena and copied his dress also contested. Interestingly, his name was R.A. Sirisena and he ended up with the third highest number of votes. For the record, there was also a candidate with the name Namal Rajapaksa at that election and he obtained the fourth highest number of votes. There is a Namal Rajapaksa contesting the 2019 election as well. Clearly, this is an abuse of democratic process.
Then there are the incentives that are afforded to candidates. They get free air time on state media for their policy statements and, simply by contesting they get publicity that would otherwise cost them millions of rupees for free.
Having had seven previous presidential elections and shortly conducting an eighth, the authorities must seriously consider whether there should be some limitations imposed on potential presidential aspirants who are simply in the contest for the ‘free ride’ they get in terms of publicity during the campaign period.
Political parties will still get ‘dummy’ candidates to run as ‘spoilers’ to split the votes of their rivals and such tactics are difficult to police. However, if they are called upon to pay a significantly higher fee as their ‘deposit’, parties would have to think twice about that strategy.
In theory, the concept of democracy allows anyone the freedom to run for high office. It should be so. However, it is clear that in presidential elections in this country this concept is being abused by some to hurt their opponents’ prospects and by others to gain publicity at the tax payers’ expense. These practices only serve to pollute the democratic process.
The outcome of the upcoming election is difficult to guess. However, it is a safe bet that 30 of the 35 candidates would together poll less than one per cent of the vote. If so, it is time that we seriously review our election laws- or else, we may have over one hundred candidates to choose from in ten years’ time!