2008 AAEA Observation Mission on Sri Lanka Eastern Province Provincial Councils Election

AAEA Observation Mission




Guidelines & the Report 





Executive Summary

The 2008 Provincial Council Elections in the Eastern Province of Trincomallee, Batticalloa, and Ampara were conducted peacefully and in an orderly manner. Every participant in the process fulfilled his respective duty with competence and becoming alacrity. As a result, polling station operations were conducted smoothly and without untoward incident.

Noteworthy was the presence of polling agents in the polling stations. Their active participation in the process clearly acted as an effective form of check-and-balance. Also worth noting was the presence of police officers in the immediate vicinity of, as well as inside, the polling stations. Their visibility ? especially considering the bombing incident in Ampara on the eve of elections ?was considerably reassuring.

As for the administration of elections, the competence of all involved was very clear. The Commissioner of Elections was even-handed and fair throughout, and his staff showed an obvious mastery of the laws and regulations on elections. The polling staff in the various polling stations showed the same mastery and competence. On the whole, the professionalism demonstrated by the election administrators contributed greatly to the credibility of the results.


While observing that the elections were free and fair, and the processes of polling and counting were conducted professionally, the AAEA Mission believes that the following recommendations would enhance the conduct of future elections

  •  A comprehensive voter education programme, carried out by the Department of Elections, in partnership with civil society organizations including other stakeholders, would improve the quality of voter participation in the process;

  • The use of the National Identity card for voter identification should be made compulsory in future elections. However, a list of acceptable substitutes should also be prepared and disseminated to the voting public prior to the elections;

  •  While authorized by law to enter polling stations, a prohibition against candidates interacting with voters inside the polling stations should be considered; and

  • The use and accessibility of the public media for candidates, political parties, and contesting independent groups should be more equal.

Members of the 2008 AAEA Observation Mission

 List of AAEA Observers and respective areas of assignment

Area of  Assignment




Ms. Ming-Hwa Tsai

Commissioner, Central Election Commission of Taiwan

Ms. Usha Nepal

Commissioner, Election Commission of Nepal

Mr. Chogyal Dago Rigdzin

Commissioner, Election Commission of Bhutan

Mr. Ming-Hsien Yu

Deputy Secretary General,Central Election Commission of Taiwan

Mr. Tzung-Yu Lai

AAEA Secretariat

Mr. James Jimenez

AAEA Secretariat


Mr. Romeo A. Brawner

Commissioner, Commission on Elections Philippines

Ms. Teresita Dy-Liacco Flores

AAEA Senior Consultant

Mr. Mehboob Answer

Joint Provincial Election Commissioner, Sindh, Pakistan

Mr. Nurul I. Khan

Joint Secretary, Bangladesh Election Commission Secretariat

Mr. Pao-Chien Wang

Executive Officer, Central Election Commission of Taiwan

Ms. Yu-Ching Hsu

AAEA Consultant


Mr. Ayub Assil

Deputy Chairman, Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan

Ms. Sri Nuryanti

Election Commissioner, Indonesian Election Commission (KPU)

Ms. Ochirkhuree Tungalag

Officer, General Election Commission of Mongolia

Mr. Yokubjon Madumarov

Senior Expert on Elections, Central Elections and Referanda Commission, Tajikistan

Mr. Hsin-Chian Hsu

AAEA Consultant


The  AAEA Mission  wishes to express its sincerest gratitude to the following:

  • The Government of Sri Lanka, for the cooperation extended to the  AAEA Mission ;

  •  The Department of Elections, for its generous cooperation and complete openness;

  •  The political parties and domestic observer groups, for their willingness to meet with us and share their thoughts, opinions, and ideas with us;

  •  The entire Coordinating Staff, headed by Mr. Siri Medawewa, who were virtual gold-mines of information at every step of the electoral process, and whose unstinting assistance was invaluable to the  AAEA Mission ;

  •  The Police who provided exemplary protection and support to all  AAEA Mission Members; and

  •  Last but not least, to the people of Sri Lanka, particularly the people of the Eastern Provinces of Trincomalee, Batticalloa, and Ampara, for their warm hospitality and unfailing graciousness as they welcomed us as observers into their communities as they participated in the electoral process.

The observers' meeting on the observation over the provincial council election


The objective of the  AAEA Mission is to witness the conduct of elections in the Eastern Provinces of Trincomallee, Batticalloa, and Ampara and to report its observations fairly and accurately. The small size of the  AAEA Mission made comprehensive monitoring of the elections impossible, and therefore this  AAEA Mission  Report serves to recount events occurring only in those places that were observed by the Mission, during the period from the 8th up to the end of the counting process on the 11th of May 2008, related to the Provincial Elections conducted in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. No post-election observation was conducted.

Legal Framework of the Election

The Tools of Devolution: The 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act

The Provincial Councils Act, No. 42 of 1987 was part of a policy of devolution ?or the decentralization of political and administrative decision-making authority from the central government to elected bodies at lower levels ?that began as early as 1955. Since then, there have been two distinct attempts to actualize that policy:

  •  The 1973/74 District Political Authority System; and

  •  The 1979/80 District Development Councils/District Minister System

After these attempts failed to achieve their goals, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced and eventually gave rise to the Provincial Councils Act. These two pieces of legislation are now considered collective as the instruments of devolution.

In brief, the 13th Amendment provides, among other things, for the establishment of Provincial Councils; the appointment and powers of the Governor of Provinces; and the grant of legislative powers of the Provincial Councils.

The Provincial Councils Act, on the other hand, lays down the Membership of the Provincial Councils, how the Provincial Councils conduct business; the financial procedures in the Provincial Councils; and the establishment of the Provincial Public Service.

The Provincial Councils Elections Act

The Provincial Councils Elections Act, No. 2 of 1988 among other things, outlines the procedures for conducting elections for Provincial Councils, as well as setting down the qualifications for contesting the elections, and the rules governing nominations. This Act has been amended three times: first, by the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 55 of 1988; second, by the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 29 of 1990; and third, by the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 05 of 2004.

The 17th Amendment

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was adopted in 2001. It called for the establishment of, among others, an independent Election Commission with broader powers than the existing Department of Elections. Since then, however, no such independent Commission has been established due to the inability of the President and the Constitutional Council to agree upon who would be named Chairman.

The Commissioner of Elections

The Commissioner of Elections is the Head of the Department of Elections. Although the Commissioner is appointed by the President, this Department does not come under the authority of any Ministry, and the salary of the Commissioner is determined by Parliament.

The new Election Commission to be created under the 17th Amendment is vested with broad powers, some of which may already be exercised by the Commissioner of Elections. Thus, the Commissioner is charged with the enforcement of election laws and he may request state authorities to aid him in that regard. He can therefore deploy police officers under his direction and control during the election period, and recommend to the President, the deployments of armed forces units for the purpose of ensuring the orderly and secure conduct of elections.

The Commissioner of Elections likewise exercises considerable control over the conduct of campaigns. He can prohibit a party or candidate from using State or public property for partisan political purposes and he can issue guidelines for the media to follow, to ensure fair and balanced coverage of the campaigns.

The Electoral System

Prior to the sweeping changes introduced by the 1978 Second Republican Constitution, an independent candidates or candidates nominated by political parties who garnered the highest number of votes in their respective constituencies were declared elected. With the adoption of the new Constitution, this first-past-the-post (FPP) system was replaced with a system of Proportional Representation.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution subsequently introduced more changes, making Sri Lanka??s present electoral system a proportional, open list, system. Under this system, voters cast a vote for the party of their choice and thereafter indicate their preference for up to three candidates from the party for which they voted. Parties are represented by symbols, e.g., a betel leaf, an elephant, an airplane, and so on; individual candidates are represented by numbers.

During counting, the votes for political parties are tallied first. Parties that obtain less than 5% of the vote are disqualified. The party with the most number of votes in the district is awarded the first seat. The remaining seats are then proportionally allocated to all qualified parties on the basis of highest averages. Once the party count is completed, preferences are tallied and the seats won by each party are distributed among their candidates on the basis of preference count.

After all the members of a Provincial Council have been declared elected, the Commissioner of Elections then determines the number of votes garnered by each recognized political party or independent group. The one with the highest number of votes is awarded two Bonus Seats.

Political Background of the Provincial Council Elections

The Provincial Councils were established by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, certified on the 14th of November 1987 and operative from the 26th of January 1988. On the 29th of January 1988, the Provincial Councils Act, No. 2 of 1988 was enacted providing, among other things, the procedures for the election of the members of Provincial Councils.

Under the Constitution, nine provinces should establish one provincial council for each. The number of members for each council would be determined by the extent of the area, and the population of each province. Each Provincial Council would then consist of one Governor, one Chief Minister, and a Board of Ministers.

Under Section 37(1)(b) of the Provincial Councils Act No. 42 of 1987, the President is empowered to amalgamate adjoining provinces and declare them as one unit. On the 8th of September 1988, the President proclaimed the amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.




In 1988, members of the administrative districts of the amalgamated North-East province were elected.

In 1990, however, the total membership of the Northern and Eastern provinces was disqualified on the basis of Section 5(3) of the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act No. 27 which provided that when a member has repudiated or manifestly disavowed obedience to the Constitution, such member is disqualified.

Several subsequent attempts to conduct elections were postponed due to various disturbances in civil administration and the continuing conflicts with Tamil separatists.

In 2006, three individuals from the Ampara District in the Eastern Province submitted three Fundamental Rights Applications before the Supreme Court. The Applications claimed that fundamental rights had been breached by the merging of the North and East Provinces as one administrative unit, and by the failure to conduct elections for the said council. The Supreme Court allowed the Applications and granted the relief prayed for, particularly the invalidation of the amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. As a consequence, the President directed the Commission of elections to conduct elections in the Eastern Province.

Political Parties

There are a number of recognized political parties and independent groups contesting the elections. However, most political analysts agree that the provincial council elections will be, for the most part, a contest between two main parties. On one hand there is the ruling United People??s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which is supported primarily by the Pilleyan Group, the Eelam People??s Democratic Party (EPDP), and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party. On the other side is the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP).

Administrative Set Up

Over-all responsibility for the conduct of elections rests on the shoulders of the Commissioner of Elections. The sitting Commissioner is a well-respected man held in high regard by both sides of the political divide, and by all stakeholders. He is universally seen as a fair and principled administrator of election laws. His consensual approach to decision making ? involving political parties whenever possible ?is considered one of the major reasons for the success of electoral exercises.

The Commissioner exercises his authority through a Returning Officer (RO) and an Assistant Commissioner (AC) in each of the 22 Electoral Districts. A Senior Presiding Officer (SPO) is in charge of each polling station, and Senior Counting Officer (SCO) is in charge of each counting center.

Party Representatives called Polling Agents are normally present at the polling station and the counting center and provide the necessary check-and-balance.

The Police

The Constitution vests the Commissioner of Elections with the authority to deploy officers on Election Day. In previous elections, the police had fielded as much as 64,000 officers throughout the country. In the Eastern Provincial Council elections, however, police deployment has been ramped up to 27,000. It is notable that the deployment of the security force is significantly high in the election.

While it is widely publicized that the Eastern Provinces have been pacified, intense apprehensions remain. There are still occasional LTTE incursions into the territory, as well as widespread reports of intimidation and violence directed both at voters and political players. For this reason, twenty-seven thousand police officers were deployed throughout the Eastern Provinces of Trincomalee, Batticalloa, and Ampara. Military units were also deployed but were tasked mainly with providing over-all security to the district.

Voter Registration

The voters?register is updated annually in May. However, because the updating process is extremely time-consuming, the registers used in these elections were from the enumeration of 2006.


Candidates are registered by their respective political parties and independent candidate groups on a per district basis. Nomination papers are submitted to the District Returning Officer. Nominations for these elections proceeded regularly and no issues have been raised on this account. It is generally accepted that the procedures involved are fair, i.e., no qualified individuals have been unduly prevented from standing for election.

The Media

While the Commissioner of Elections is empowered to enforce fairness in the use of media, this power is severely limited. The Commissioner only had jurisdiction over state electronic media, i.e., radio and television; and even then, only to the extent of appointing a Competent Authority to over management when these broadcasting entities violate the Guidelines set for them.

The Commissioner, on the other hand, has no control over private electronic media, the public station ITN, and the state media company Lake House. Consequently, those media are widely perceived as not being equally accessible to all parties.

Because of the short duration of the  AAEA Mission's stay in-country, no significant medium to long term media monitoring was possible. However, exposure to media reportage ?particularly newspaper reportage ?did indicate that concerns about equal access have to be seriously considered.

AAEA Observers for Ampara District, Sri Lanka

Pre-Election Observation

The  AAEA Mission  created three groups of observers to cover the districts of Trincomalee, Batticalloa, and Ampara. These teams departed from Colombo on the 8th of May and stayed in their respective areas of assignment until the 11th of May 2008.

All three groups reported nominal conditions in their respective areas. The issuing of ballot papers, ballot boxes, and other election paraphernalia were observed to have proceeded with no significant incident. Polling station rehearsals were also observed and found to have been carried out with no significant incident.

The only significant deviation from the norm observed by the AAEAOM Groups was the detonation of a bomb in Ampara town on the eve of Election Day. The explosion sparked off a flurry of intensified police and military activity in the area but did not derail preparations for the polls.


Election Day Observation

Each group split into three smaller teams to ensure the widest possible coverage of their respective areas. The Trincomallee group conducted in-depth observations of the elections in 37 polling stations; the Batticalloa group observed 29 polling stations; and the Ampara group observed 31 polling stations. Less in-depth observations were conducted in other polling stations. The ability to observe polling stations was limited by both the small size of observer groups and the distances between polling stations. The polling stations observed were chosen at random.

With the groups covering approximately 10% of polling stations in their respective areas, it is believed that the sampling was of sufficient size.
While each team had varying experiences, all observers reported that the elections were conducted systematically; the poll staff performed their duties competently and with high levels of professionalism; and that the elections over-all were peaceful, organized, and transparent.
Voter turn-out was clearly not affected by the incident in Ampara town the night before as all observers noted that the voters were clearly very eager to participate in the electoral process. Observers particularly noted the high levels of participation of women voters. This was considered a very good indication of the gender balance in the political engagement of Sri Lankan citizens.

The use of the National Identity Card also clearly facilitated the polling. In those cases where the voter did not have a National Identity Card, a photograph accompanied by a certification as to his identity was considered acceptable. In some polling stations, when a voter failed to present either, he was asked to acquire the necessary certification from the grama niladhari.

In at least one instance, however, the SPO was witnessed to exercise sound discretion in allowing a disable voter to cast his ballot even without an identity card once his identity had been established using the list of voters, without protest from the polling agents present.

The exemplary conduct of the elections notwithstanding, individual observers noted the following:

  • Some polling stations were situated in very small structures, causing some crowding in the station;

  • Polling station assignments sometimes resulted in stations handling very large numbers of voters to be situated in close proximity to stations handling very small numbers of voters;

  • Some voters did not appear to be fully apprised of the larger issues at play in the elections;

  • Many voters did not appear to be fully aware of how to correctly accomplish the ballot; and

  • Some candidates were observed to be interacting with voters inside the polling station.



In all polling stations observed by members of the  AAEA Mission , the polling was closed promptly at 4:00 p.m. Also in stations observed by the  AAEA Mission , closing procedures were complied with completely and professionally, with the Senior Presiding Officer and the polling agents cooperating fully. As a result, no significant deviations from the norm were observed.

Ballot boxes arrived in the counting centers at various times owing to the distances involved, however for the most part, counting started promptly.

The  AAEA Mission  observers were generally granted full access to the counting centers and were able to witness the counting processes for both postal and regular voting.

It is significant to note that in those cases where ballots were invalidated, the apparent reason for the invalidation was voter error in accomplishing the ballot. More specifically, in a number of cases, it seemed that voters indicated preferences by marking cages corresponding to Independent Groups.

Independent Groups are differentiated by numbers, as opposed to recognized political parties being designated by symbols. Preferences are, like Independent Groups, designated by numbers. Although the voting cages for preferences were printed below the listing of political parties and independent groups, it appeared that the voting cages for preferences were not sufficiently identified as such.

Apart from this observation, post-election procedures were carried out systematically, and ?with the active participation of the agents of political parties ?transparently.