available languages: english 16, 2020

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This analysis was written by Sabra Zahid, an attorney-at-law from Sri Lanka and Programme Officer at DRI Sri Lanka.

Maintaining democratic processes and ensuring the health and safety of the people has been challenging in recent times. Governments have come under pressure to find ways to maintain democratic processes such as elections while ensuring the safety of its people.

Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the parliament on 2 March this year, elections have been on the top of the country’s political agenda. Initially scheduled for 25 April, the pandemic forced the hand of the government to postpone elections till 5 August 2020. However, on the other hand, although Sri Lanka declared no community spread of covid-19 on 20 May 2020, the country recently recorded the highest daily number of cases (300) on 10 July 2020. Since then many cases have been reported, raising fears of a second wave of infections.

Campaigns are crucial for democracy

At a most basic level, election campaigns inform voters of the choices before them and mobilize citizen participation. Campaigns are also useful to bring new players into the political field. For elections to be effective, a level playing field must be ensured with any public resources allocated to candidates being equitable. Furthermore, details on how candidate resource allocation must be transparent.

In Sri Lanka traditionally the fight has been between two major political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), both parties which have now splintered. Smaller parties, including minority parties, and female candidates across the board have limited access to resources, limiting their ability to conduct effective and wide-reaching campaigns across the electorate. At present, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), lead by the Rajapakse brothers, appears to be the favourite given its vocal stance on national security and is leading its campaign to secure a 2/3 majority to abolish the 19th amendment. The opposition United National Party is weakened after its deputy leader formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, taking with him a number of key UNP members.

Campaigning during a pandemic

Sri Lanka, whilst responding to the covid-19 pandemic in a way that prevents the spreading of the virus, must also protect and respect democratic practices. Campaigning which usually uses multiple modes of public engagement such as meet and greets, door to door visits, speaking events, will need to reconsider these methods to minimize the spread of the virus. In recent times many traditional methods including public gatherings and written media have been replaced by social media campaigns, which are more costly than traditional campaigning methods. Additionally, wealthier candidates of major parties use many of their resources to gain air-time in radio and TV programming. Therefore, there is an imbalance of the reach that candidates enjoy and this imbalance is directly related to available funding of candidates.

For any election to be effective, a level playing field must be ensured between candidates. To ensure a level playing field, we should allow as many mediums as possible for the public to learn about candidate policy and plans in a safe manner. In order to strike this balance of holding a free and fair election and ensuring public safety in a pandemic, Sri Lanka can look to best practices by other countries.

South Korea, conducting parliamentary elections in April 2020 amidst the pandemic, conducted election campaigns with strict social distancing practices in place. Media reports indicate that candidates were seen addressing crowds in masks and gloves and trying to minimize physical contact with voters by greeting constituents from a distance with fist or elbow bumps instead of handshakes. Much of the activities moved online, using text messages and phone calls to appeal to the electorate who engaged from their homes. The South Korean elections had an overall voter turnout of 66% which was the highest in the last 16 years, dispelling doubts that the fear of the infection spreading would keep the voters away. Similarly, it would be interesting to see Sri Lanka’s voter turnout this time, given that on average Sri Lanka’s voter turnout has been around 75%, demonstrating general public trust and interest in the electoral process.

Adhering to health and safety guidelines

The Center for Monitoring Election Violence has raised concerns with the Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine and the Health Services Director General questioning the delay in gazetting the covid-19 health guidelines in relation to the upcoming general elections despite the guidelines being prepared with the support of the Election Commission. In light of the crisis, it is important to limit large gatherings, or at least ensure social distancing guidelines are followed. Organizers of respective political parties have an obligation to the public to ensure that safety guidelines are enforced at campaign rallies. However, managing large crowds could pose a challenge and thus the risk levels for covid-19 remain high at political rallies.

Currently, with the election date announced political parties have launched their campaigns through a combination of physical outreach events as well as on social media. Photos taken at public gatherings shared by candidates themselves on their social media platforms show that no physical distancing measures were adhered to. With the recent spike in numbers, the SLPP has postponed large public gatherings indefinitely and requested party candidates to limit their gatherings and to ensure that health and safety guidelines issued by health officials are adhered to.

The digital sphere

In recent years political parties and candidates, including in Sri Lanka, have used social media platforms in their campaigning and have evolved their campaign tactics to incorporate digital media. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, mobile-based applications and paid advertisements on social media are some tools that are already used by candidates in Sri Lanka. Therefore, at a time when in-person campaigns are limited, campaigns can lean heavily on these tools. This does, however, come with added challenges in light of online targeting, fake news, hate speech, online gender-based violence and the prevalent access and resource gap.

In Sri Lanka, Facebook is the most popularly used social media platform with 7 million users, followed by 1.1 million users on Instagram. Monitoring Facebook during the 2019 presidential elections, Democracy Reporting International found an increase in Facebook activity during the election period (310% increase on Facebook pages and 226% increase in Facebook groups). The study points to the use of sensitive topics such as reconciliation and peace coupled with governance to misinform and deepen the divide between communities. The study further highlights that posts with negative content associated most with protected characteristics of ethnicity, religion, and race.

In 2018, Facebook’s failure to remove hate speech and disinformation led to anti-Muslim riots forcing the government to impose a state of emergency as well as impose a temporary Facebook ban. During the violence that ensued at least three people were killed and twenty were injured as well as causing serious property damage. Article One, the human rights consultancy firm hired by Facebook to conduct an investigation into the role they may have played in the violence, found that hate speech and rumours spread on Facebook “may have led to offline violence”.

Ensuring representation of women

The gendered impact of covid-19 is documented. Sri Lanka and elsewhere, has seen a spike in the number of domestic violence cases with the implementing of lockdown measures. These realities show the need to have more women at decision-making levels. Political parties must demonstrate a genuine effort to field more women candidates and provide support in the campaigning process. Working from home, closure of schools and daycare centres have increased the role of unpaid care work for women and placed additional burdens of women now required to balance work and domestic chores. In traditional contexts, lockdown measures can be resorted to by conservative male family members and community leaders to prevent women from political participation. Election management bodies, political parties and other stakeholders must account for these inequalities to ensure the integrity and inclusiveness of the election process.  Given that women generally have less access to resources for campaigning, there must be effective oversight of political finance allocations to prevent the further skewing of the playing fields towards male candidates from top political parties. Women candidates who are likely to have less online campaigning experience and related resources should be provided information, training and resources to conduct outreach campaigns on social media platforms.

Women and particularly women from underrepresented groups are targeted online and subject to abuse and hate speech. With an increased likelihood of campaigning activities moving online, there is an increased space for women being targeted online, which election monitoring bodies, political parties and other stakeholders must account for. Mechanisms must be put in place to counter gender-based online violence and hate speech that could prevent women from taking to the digital sphere for campaigning.

In conclusion, how the election campaign and the elections are managed will demonstrate not only the political will to manage the covid-19 crisis but also its regard for democratic principles.