Sri Lankans get to vote for female candidates for first timeBut Muslim leaders protest women candidates' involvement as new electoral system debuts
A large crowd in the capital on the last day of pre-election campaigning for local government seats in Colombo, with the polls set for Feb. 10. Women make up 52 percent of the population but their representation in politics ranks among the lowest in Southeast Asia. (ucanews.com photo)
Sri Lankans are due to head to the polls on Feb. 10 as the nation stages its first local government election under a new system but outspoken critics of female candidates argue that women should not be representing the country.
Some 15.8 million people are eligible to vote for the 8,346 seats needed to fill 341 bodies, after a two-year delay due in part to the adoption of a new mixed-member proportional system and the subsequent need for a new delimitation of electoral wards.
Thirty parties are being represented in the poll, with some of the biggest players drawing ethnic and religious lines.
The two main parties in the current government coalition — the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — will now appear as rivals.
The parties are led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena, respectively, but face a formidable threat from Joint Opposition, a political alliance backed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Meanwhile, Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon, the executive director of Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), said women candidates in some parts of the country have been maligned by hard-line conservative forces and even subjected to physical attacks.
"Some Muslim leaders have spoken out vehemently against women competing in the township of Kattankudy on the east coast and in Puttalam district on the west coast," he told ucanews.com.
"Sri Lanka has implemented a women's quota for the first time," said the CaFFE director, who works with 5,000 monitors to help supervise local elections nationwide.
"At least 25 percent of candidates from each party should now be female," he said.
"The new system marks a significant change from what we had before," he added.
Posters of candidates as seen in Colombo ahead of the Feb. 10 polls. (ucanews.com photo)
Others just hope the elections usher in a new era of reconciliation.
In Polonnaruwa district on Feb. 3 a female candidate lodged a formal complaint with police claiming four of her political opponents had sexually harassed her.
Other cases against women have also been reported.
"There is less election violence this time round compared to past elections," Tennakoon said.
Voters should use their franchise wisely by choosing well-educated candidates as a preliminary step to cleaning up local government bodies, he said.
The election commission was scheduled to deploy 10 foreign observers from Indonesia, India, South Korea and the Maldives to monitor the polls.
Human rights activist Sadunil Manikkaarachchi said reconciliation, large-scale fraud and corruption are the key issues now plaguing the country.
"It's important that power is shared fairly among the ethnic majority and minorities," he said. "We must also ensure there is accountability for rights violations that have occurred over three decades of war," he said.
"The main parties have already selected corrupt and 'underworld' candidates but voters can be prudent and elect the best reps from their villages," he said.
"The gender discrimination women face in Sri Lankan politics is a problem and it needs to be addressed."
Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), an anti-graft watchdog, has reported that 55 percent of all the complaints it has received lately relate to the misuse of fixed and movable assets, human resources, and state-controlled media.
"Another 15 percent relate to illegitimate inducements being offered to voters," said TISL in a statement dated Feb. 7.
TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere said the abuse of central government resources, such as using ministerial vehicles at campaigns, is "still prevalent."
Dhiloraj Ranjith Canagasabey, the Anglican bishop of Colombo, urged politicians to adopt a new code of conduct for parliamentarians.
"Signs that the governance of this nation is drifting aimlessly have appeared in the last few months," he said in a statement on Feb. 4 to mark Sri Lanka's independence day.
Some 26,840 government officers are being deployed for the poll to man 13,420 stations in addition to 13,552 police officers lending their support nationwide, officials said.
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