Mahinda Deshapriya

A model citizen who has left an indelible mark on the Sri Lankan psyche through his steadfast belief in accountability and fair play

Hailed by observer groups as a landmark year in Sri Lanka’s post-independence election history, 2015 kicked off with a presidential election which saw the end of the reign of an executive president who ruled the roost for nearly a decade, over two terms in office, as Sri Lanka’s commander-in-chief. And in August, citizens were called upon to exercise their democratic right yet again – this time around, at the parliamentary polls.

Much to the surprise of just about everyone under the sun, both polls were as free, fair and violence-free as one could ever imagine, in the context of elections and Sri Lanka.

One of the primary reasons cited by all and sundry for the perceived success of the polls was the manner in which they were conducted. Leading from the front in this endeavour was the Department of Elections, ably spearheaded by Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya.

In the years gone by, allegations of fraud and other election malpractices floated around far too liberally, for a nation that proudly upholds its democratic traditions. But in the lead up to twin elections this year, the bold stance taken by Deshapriya & Co. saw the masses (and the international community, one might add) interpret the poll results as being a largely legitimate representation of voter preferences.

So much so that the September edition of LMD hailed the Commissioner of Elections as “the man of the moment for many Sri Lankans,” reflecting “an election that he won” – although he magnanimously refrains from accepting such titles, as Zulfath Saheed learnt during an exclusive interview with the magazine’s 2015 Sri Lankan Of The Year (SLOTY)!

LMD has also noted that “it’s been a long, long time since this country witnessed a relatively peaceful run-up to an election, thanks to his no-nonsense approach to nonchalance and much more that pervades politics in this country. He clamped down on just about everything that usually crops up at election time.”

It is in recognition of his fearless and admirable efforts to protect the country’s election process, and thwarting any attempts by those seeking to manipulate the system, that LMD confers its most prestigious title to Mahinda Deshapriya this year.

Hailing from the island’s Southern Province, Deshapriya’s undergraduate education saw him pursue a degree in chemistry, following which he joined his alma mater as a teacher of chemistry and mathematics, in which capacity he served from 1977.

He was placed second in the all-island ranking at the recruitment examination for the Sri Lanka Administrative Service in 1981/82. And on 1 July 1982, he was recruited to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Following an induction course, Deshapriya was appointed as the Assistant Commissioner of Elections of the Department of Elections, and served in that capacity in Trincomalee, Matara, Galle, Kalutara and Colombo.

On 2 November 2006, he was appointed a Deputy Commissioner of Elections at the Elections Secretariat, and elevated to the post of Additional Commissioner of Elections, four years later. With the incumbent retiring from service, Deshapriya – the most senior Additional or Deputy Commissioner of Elections at the time – was appointed Commissioner of Elections on 25 March 2011, in accordance with Article 103 of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Deshapriya had previously served as a United Nations Volunteer in the Popular Consultation (UNAMET) in East Timor, in 1999. Representing yet another feather in his cap, he also serves as Chairman of the Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA) 2015-2016.

There’s little doubt that LMD’s 2015 SLOTY, through his decorated career and dedication to the nation’s public service, serves as a shining example for others in his chosen occupation and beyond to emulate.

Excerpts from Zulfath Saheed’s tête-à-tête with LMD’s Sri Lankan Of The Year 2015

Q: What are your key takeaways from recently held elections? And what were the main challenges you faced during this period?

A: Sovereignty belongs to the people, and it is an inalienable right; political franchise and administrative powers are part of sovereignty. So to safeguard the sovereignty of the nation, it is imperative that citizens cast their vote – i.e. to elect our political representatives, we must vote.

After the 2010 election, however, many citizens seemed to be of the view that there was no point in going to the polling booth to cast their vote, due to rumours about a so-called ‘computer jilmart.’ But we have the documents signed by election agents to say that this was merely a vicious rumour, and that there was no truth to it.

My main task was to find a way to overcome the problem of this negative mindset towards elections in the country. So from 2011 onwards, we started to change the minds of people through voter education programmes, which were conducted in the three main languages.

There were baseless rumours that one could be traced for whom he or she had voted; and that after the elections, one could be subjected to harassment.

Through voter education programmes, we stressed on the importance of the fact that the ‘vote is your right,’ ‘no one can trace your vote at the polling station,’ ‘no one can force you to vote for whom or not to vote,’ ‘you can vote without any fear or intimidation’ and ‘the police is for your security and protection.’ Furthermore, we ensured that ‘we will count the votes accurately and declare the correct results.’

The other obstacle we faced was to get the support of government staff (public servants and the police), without any fear arising out of working according to the law. To overcome this, we even issued circulars to the government service staff (public servants and the police), stating that no one is above the law.

The Department of Elections adheres to the belief that our work must be audit-proof, courts-proof and conscience-proof. Abiding by the law and the Constitution are most important. For the parliamentary elections, the Department was granted additional powers through the 19th Amendment. Accordingly, if any government servant were to misbehave, they would be punished.

Following the elections held this year, there was talk that the Commissioner of Elections was the ‘Man of the Match.’ My argument is that I am only the curator, whose job it is to create a level playing field, for which I’m paid through the general public’s money.

So with the help of the entire public service and the police – as well as the support of politicians, journalists, observer and civil society groups and, most importantly, the public – we were able to work without fear during the election period.

As they say in cricket, ‘teamwork pays dividends.’

Q: What reforms are in the pipeline, with respect to the upcoming local government polls?

A: We had two major elections this year, and another election – the local government polls – are scheduled to be held next year; but not before March, because there are some grievances that need to be looked into regarding the delimitation process.

To this end, the Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils will appoint a high-powered committee to look into relevant matters, along with a technical committee to provide the required support.

According to the secretary of the Ministry of Local Government, the main committee will be headed by a Retired Secretary of a Ministry who has experience related to elections and lands, and representatives from political parties. Meanwhile, the technical committee will comprise representatives from the Department of Elections, the Department of Census and Statistics, the Survey Department, legal experts and the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils. It will take a minimum of three months to solve those issues.

I have also received complaints from various affected parties and professionals that the proposed delimitation process is not 100 percent intact. According to the Act, too, there is a provision to solve these problems and grievances regarding delimitation. According to the current Local Authorities Elections Act, as amended by the Act, No. 22 of 2012, the present system comprises the First-Past-the-Post system (Ward Style) and Proportional Representation for the losers (unrepresented) voters.

Q: Would you agree that the media by and large acted responsibly in its election coverage? And is there room for improvement?

A: Yes, definitely, in the recent elections, they helped us carry out our duties. Even during the Uva Provincial Council Election in 2014, a private media outlet provided me with airtime. Then, during the last presidential election, two private media institutions conducted a comprehensive, two-hour-long interview with me, to create awareness among the general public about free and fair elections.

For the recent parliamentary polls, all private media outlets, plus the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and even Rupavahini, allocated airtime to me. I must say that at every election, SLBC aired the Subharathi programme live from the Elections Secretariat; but sometimes, there were complaints against them as well.

The Department of Elections doesn’t have any power to control the private media; we can only issue media guidelines. Moreover, we set up a group called the Action Committee of Permanent Representatives of Journalists, to observe the non-adherence or violation of media guidelines. All media organisations, including private media, nominated one permanent member and an alternate member to this group. Through discussion and agreement with this group, we were able to minimise biased news and programmes.

Meanwhile, state media has to strictly obey the guidelines relevant to them, as they are answerable and the punishment is clearly spelt out – i.e. a legal sentence and fine.

Some serious complaints were made against certain media outlets. For instance, during the 2015 presidential election, I had to personally visit a media station on Election Day, to ask them to stop airing a programme! Nevertheless, we minimised such instances and conducted the elections to the best of our ability.

I considered it a part of my duty of working for the people. There is a saying that ‘what must be done tomorrow, must be done today; and what must be done today, must be done now.’ That is our motto as well, at the Department of Elections. This means that during election periods, all staff at the Department must work 25 hours a day, eight days a week!

Q: The Department of Elections celebrated its 60th anniversary recently. Are you satisfied with what it has achieved thus far – and what do you envisage for its future?

A: The procedure to elect representatives to the legislature commenced in 1911. From 1911 to 1931, there was limited voting; and in 1931, Sri Lankans received universal franchise. Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia to achieve this feat.

The 1931 and 1936 general elections were conducted by government agents and the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs. From 1936 to 1947, there were no general elections due to World War II. In 1947, an Election Commissioner was appointed in time for the parliamentary election. During this period, a separate department was created to conduct local government elections. General elections were held in 1952. Then, in 1955, these two departments were amalgamated, after which the Department of Elections was born.

We have conducted 13 parliamentary elections, seven presidential elections, one referendum, and countless local government and provincial council elections. To safeguard the franchise and democratic rights of the people, the Department of Elections has worked for the last 60 years – sometimes, under difficult conditions.

Before 1955, it would take one-and-a-half months to conduct a parliamentary election; after the establishment of the Department of Elections in 1955, it took only three days. In 1960, we started to conduct one-day elections. From as long ago as 1959, we proposed to issue a special identity card to voters, to prevent malpractices, especially im­personation. And we proposed the postal votes system to the select committee, to safeguard the franchise of the armed forces, the police and election staff.

In 1988/89, the entire country was in a very serious situation, and groups in both the north and the south were demanding that elections not be held. They said that since there was no democracy in the country, we must not conduct elections. Although a difficult task at the time, we went ahead and conducted elections, to safeguard the franchise and democracy.

In November 1988, we conducted the Eastern Provincial Council elections, not only with the help of the Sri Lankan armed forces and police, but also the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The 1988/89 presidential and parliamentary elections were also held with the help of the IPKF.

Following on from the various insurgencies, unruly and politically motivated groups started the practice of stuffing ballot boxes. But we came up with many methods to counter this, by annulling polls and through other laws, with the support of the legislature. The support of the recognised political parties and the legislature, and some judgements from the Supreme Court – along with the observer groups, civil organisations and the media – helped us overcome these problems.

Along the way, we faced downfalls as well. Some elections were not up to the mark – for example, the 1981 Jaffna District Develop­ment Council elections, the 1982 referendum and the 1998 North-West Provincial Council elections. Those elections are black marks in Sri Lankan election history.

Our most important achievement is that now, the whole world – especially South Asia – takes an example of how to conduct free and fair elections by looking at Sri Lanka. If we can’t hold free and fair elections, the next step will be insurgency, and a rebel culture will follow. To ensure a civi­lised society, we must have free and fair elections.

Under the 19th Amendment, before the end of November, an Elections Commission is scheduled to be set up to replace the De­partment of Elections. So in a similar fashion to government servants retiring from service upon reaching the age of 60, our department will also be to retiring from service this year.

Q: What are your views on the proposed reforms to the country’s electoral system?

A: There are two main electoral systems that can be adopted – First-Past-the-Post (FPP) and Proportional Representation (PR). Prior to 1931, Sri Lanka had large electorates that were community-based. From 1931 onwards, we had demarcated electorates across the country. In 1978, we introduced the PR system, without preferential votes; and in 1987, we introduced PR with referential votes (PR with P).

Some say that PR with P is the most democratic system, as the people can decide who is voted into power; whereas with FPP, it is the political party that decides. Both systems have their merits and demerits. For the local government, there is a hybrid-mixed system in place, with a ratio of 10:3 (FPP:PR). And there are criticisms of this system, too. But the Commissioner of Elections cannot de­cide on which election system should be adopted – that is the domain of the legislature.

For the 8 January presidential election, the manifestos of both candidates standing for election stated that Sri Lanka would have a mixed (FPP and PR) electoral system. While 5.8 million citizens voted for the ex-president, the incumbent received 6.2 million votes, implying that 12 million people voted in favour of a mixed system. So Parliament is most likely to vote in favour of this system, because it has clearly received the people’s mandate.

But I reiterate that any of these proposals for electoral reforms can be implemented only through Parliament.

Q: There have been calls to improve the representation of women in Parliament, introduce a new system for casting votes and limit the expenditure of candidates during election campaigns. Where do you stand on these issues?

A: We must look into the issue of women’s representation – i.e. gender equity in political representation. Indeed, Sri Lanka is amongst the worst, when it comes to female representation in the legislature or local government authorities.

I carried out the introduction of media guidelines and a code of conduct for political parties, by discussing with a committee called the Permanent Representatives Com­mittee for the Inquiry of Election Com­plaints. This committee comprised secretaries of political parties or their nominees.

We held discussions, and the committee proposals included improving women’s participation in politics – along with relaxing the laws relating to the exhibition of posters and cut-outs, seeing to the franchise of migrant workers and monitoring of campaign finances. But all of these proposals can only see the light of day with the concurrence and approval of the legislature.

We must also consider the need for ad­vanced voting procedures, for those engaged in essential services – e.g. the health, hotel and hospitality sectors, diplomatic mission staff, airport and port staff, journalists, private sector drivers, etc. Another area to cover is conducting an all-inclusive election, by providing facilities for disabled individuals.

The other issue is recognising political parties. We have a host of defunct, non-representative parties. There is a proposal with regard to recognising a political party, whereby one-third of the general/national committee, one-fourth of the central executive committee and one-fifth of office bearers respectively must be female. What we have at present is that of the office bearers, at least one must be a female, and we have submitted a proposal to change that.

I hope that by the end of 2016, the country will be able to amend the law to increase female representation in political parties, along with advanced voting. The issue of migrant workers’ votes, however, will take some time to resolve.

The next proposal is to implement electronic voting, for which it is very easy to change the law. But it will take time to change the mindset of the public about the possibility of ‘computer jilmart.’ Neverthe­less, we must introduce Electronic Voting Machines (EVM), as we can then minimise the cost of conducting elections vis-à-vis printing ballot papers, and thereby do our bit to protect the environment as well.

Q: What is your take of the law and order situation in the country? How do we solve the problems there are?

A: My thinking is that no one is above the law. The most important thing to remember is that if there is no law and order, it is not only the fault of the Government – citizens are also responsible for ensuring law and order. The general public and all citizens must work together, towards [achieving] good governance.

Q: How can the business community play a part in the push to ensure good governance?

A: The business community has a major role to play in educating the people on the importance of exercising their vote and ensuring good governance, as key stakeholders of the electoral process.

Furthermore, the business community – in collaboration with the chambers of commerce and employees associations – can educate not only their staff and workers, but also themselves, on the importance of registering their votes. It is worth noting that Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that conduct an annual review of the voter register.

They could help us promote posters on voter awareness and the importance of registering as voters in their workplaces. Through social responsibility projects, the business community could help improve conditions at polling stations in remote areas, especially by building ramps in areas that are not easily accessible by voters, which could also be helpful. Furthermore, employers must provide voluntary leave for their employees to cast their votes.

Q: How would you advice the next generation of leaders, if you were to focus on righting what’s wrong in this country?

A: The younger generation in Sri Lanka is very interested in good governance, and ensuring law and order, which is reflected especially through their engagement via social media. They have also demonstrated a greater interest in the election process.

Over the last two to three years, we witnessed a gradual increase in the voter turnout at elections, and this has been because the youth came to the polls. If the younger generation continues to make an effort to cast their vote, then automatically, free and fair elections should prevail.

As already noted, law and order is not solely the responsibility of the Government; all citizens – including the youth – have a responsibility towards this cause.

Q: Would you consider running for political office, in the future?

A: I have been involved in politics from when I was in university. And during my career as a teacher, for five years, I was an active member of the Ceylon Teachers Union. However, I have no intention of entering politics now.

Nevertheless, I remain very interested in politics and the economy, and will continue to keep abreast of the latest developments on both those fronts.

After retiring from my post of Elections Commissioner, if I don’t have any further commitments in Colombo, I plan to return to my hometown – Ambalangoda, where I will work for the betterment of cricket and my alma mater Dharmasoka College.

I was – and still am – a cricket administrator at heart, and an active member of my college old boys’ association.


6 June 1955


Table tennis

Prajapathi Gothami Vidyalaya (Ambalangoda)
Dharmasoka College (Ambalangoda)
University of Peradeniya
International Management Institute – New Delhi


The immense ability and potential of the people

Entitlement mentality and attitude of the people

Potential to become a regional hub (especially for maritime trade, education and technology)



“It will be a developed nation, and become one of the best countries in Asia. I also envision that at least a fraction of those who migrated overseas will return to serve their country of birth.”


M. D. Wimalasuriya
Former Principal of Dharmasoka College (Ambalangoda) – and teachers

Chandrananda de Silva
Former Commissioner of Elections

Dayananda Dissanayake
Former Commissioner of Elections

Including parents, siblings, friends and neighbours.