Jaffna Counting Centre Drama: Sumanthiran Clarifies Position

Jaffna Counting Centre Drama: Sumanthiran Clarifies Position

Dramatic scenes unfolded outside the Jaffna Central College main counting center early Friday (7) night when ITAK candidate Shashikala Raviraj alleged that the preferential vote count was tampered with and accused TNA Spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran of tampering with the preferential vote count at the eleventh hour.

Shashikala Raviraj is the wife of slain TULF Parliamentarian S. Raviraj who was assassinated in 2006.

In an emotional Facebook posting Praveena Raviraj daughter of the candidate and slain MP claimed that they had been “unofficially” informed that her mother has polled the second highest number of preferential votes in the Jaffna District and would enter Parliament as a TNA MP. The final vote tally had reflected a different picture she claimed, with Sumanthiran who was also contesting in the Jaffna District “nowhere near 4th place” suddenly becoming the second-highest preferential vote taker. The daughter of MP Raviraj also made a grave charge against the TNA spokesman, saying he had been witnessed along with a ITAK provincial council member sitting with elections officers in the final counting area.

The chronology of events surrounding this bizarre charge against the TNA spokesman began with rumours swirling on social media that Sumanthiran had lost his seat in Jaffna. Several key influencers in the Tamil community posted about unofficial results also showing that Shashikala Raviraj had won a seat in Parliament on the ITAK ticket.

Colombo Telegraph learns that Mrs Raviraj and her family even received congratulatory phone calls about her victory, a message that was repeatedly reinforced as the counting process continued. Long before the official elected MP list was released, Colombo was buzzing with rumours that Sumanthiran had lost the election as a result of the social media campaign.

However when the results were eventually published by the Jaffna election officials, Sumanthiran was No 2 on the ITAK Jaffna list, holding the same position he held on his party’s list at the last poll, although he received considerably fewer preferential votes. In fact Mrs Raviraj was placed fourth on the ITAK Jaffna list behind Dharmalingam Sidharthan the leader of PLOTE.

Crowds had gathered outside the Jaffna Central College as news was released that Mrs Raviraj eventually had not won a seat, angry protestors whipped into a frenzy by an overactive rumour mill tried to breach the counting centre doors. Police stepped in to stop the crowds from entering the counting centre which would have had its results declared invalid if a disturbance took place, Sumanthiran told reporters in Jaffna yesterday.

Explaining how the counting works after an election, the TNA Spokesman said that counting was done at different locations and brought to the electoral district’s primary counting centre – in this case Jaffna Central College.

Sumanthiran explained that when an agent brings his own polling division’s result to the main counting centre, the total preference order changes depending on which candidate has polled well in that particular division. “This is very normal and nothing is final until all the results are in” he added.

“Each counting booth has agents from all parties and results are finalised only after their verification and agreement,” the TNA Spokesman said.

He added that his agents had consistently told him that he had polled No 1 or No 2 in every polling division. “If you look at the result this fact can be verified. But I was open to any result. There were suggestions that I might lose as well and I was open to this possibility.

He specifically noted that Candidates and their representatives are fully entitled to enter Counting Stations to hear the results. Colombo Telegraph learns that it is common for candidates to enter the counting centres in order to ensure requests for recounts are heard and clarifications can be sought and that this is a regular occurrence all over the country while preference votes are being counted.

Subsequently, videos were released on several news media including websites showing police assaulting crowds outside the main Counting Centre. Other views also appeared of weeping members of Mrs Raviraj’s family and the candidate herself accusing Sumanthiran of stealing the vote. Another video emerged of Sumanthiran being escorted to his vehicle as the crowds hurled insults, portraying him as seeking security from the Government.

Sources in Jaffna told Colombo Telegraph that the dramatic scenes at the counting centre in Jaffna was linked to a vicious offensive to jeopardize Sumanthiran’s re-election campaign that has been ongoing for two months. The offensive followed an interview Sumanthiran did in Sinhala with TV personality Chamuditha Samarawickrema which quickly turned controversial for the Tamil politico in the North with colleagues in the TNA itself denouncing his statements after hardline Tamil groups and media aligned with those groups launched a massive campaign to discredit the TNA Spokesman within his constituency as one who undermined the Tamil liberation struggle. Sumanthiran’s moderate credentials, international stature and appeal to southern moderates have made the TNA Spokesman powerful enemies in the hardline circuit, observers of Tamil politics told Colombo Telegraph. Defeating Sumanthiran at the election became the primary objective of these groups who have consistently maintained that the TNA spokesman’s policy of appeasing the south is aimed at personal gain rather than taking care of his constituency. Interestingly some of these hardline Tamil groups continue to be linked to the ruling party SLPP. Sumanthiran who holds moderate views and has consistently eschewed violence and separatism poses a threat to the Sinhala extremist project owned and operated by the Rajapaksa Government which must portray every Tamil politician a pro-Tiger, a Jaffna-based political analyst told Colombo Telegraph.

Political observers also noted that it was a shame Mrs Raviraj and her family had been put through this very emotional ordeal. Praveena Raviraj followed up with a second Facebook post in which she alleged that the TNA Leader R. Sampanthan had refused to take their calls on Thursday night. “Sumanthiran was the lawyer for the Raviraj family in the murder case, looking after their interests. He was very much in support of Mrs Raviraj being given nominations to contest under ITAK. He has regularly called for greater female representation on the ITAK ticket – so why would he try to do such a thing to her?” one political activist questioned. The activist added that the Elections Commission should clarify the matter and assure all parties that there was no discrepancy or distortion in the results because the allegation was a grave one and could throw doubt on the integrity of the count and counting officials.

The following is Sumanthiran’s full statement on the issue at a press conference held in Jaffna on Friday:

The allegations are very strange.

Counting is done at different locations and brought to the electoral district’s primary counting centre. Each counting booth has agents from all parties. Results are finalised only after their verification and agreement.

When an agent brings his polling division’s result to the main counting centre the preference order changes depending on who polled well in that particular division.

This is very normal and nothing is final until all results are in.

My agents consistently told me that I am either first or second in every division. If you look at the result this fact can be verified. But I was open to any result. There were suggestions that I might lose as well and I was open to this possibility.

We were following the news on social media. At one point allegation that I was stealing the victory of fellow candidate Tharmalingam Siddharthan got floated. He was at the Jaffna Central College, the primary counting centre, with a crowd. The crowd was alleging that I had stolen his seat. Later, video showed him speaking to the Returning Officer for Jaffna, the Government Agent. I was at home during all of this.

I never went to the counting area. Not this time. Not previously when I contested. I was at home the whole day.

After 12 AM, on 07 August, when I received news that the results were about to be announced, I visited the announcement area. I went because last time, too, all the contestants went to the same place and the Returning Officer read the result out to us. The Returning Officer was seated at his desk. I sat away from him and did not speak to him. While I was inside fellow contestant Mrs. Sashikala Raviraj came in and spoke to the Returning Officer. She had spoken to him earlier as well. Contestants speaking to the Returning Officer is not unusual. I was waiting for the results to be announced. But the announcement was being delayed – for reasons unknown to me.

At this point, a mob tried to enter the building forcefully and was blocked and chased away by the police on duty. This was necessary. All the ballot boxes were inside that building and any vandalization would have called the election in to question. Once the mob was cleared, I came back home.

Usually, defeated contestant accuses the contestant directly ahead of him/her. On this occasion, however, the person who finished fourth (Mrs. Raviraj) is placing allegations against me – who polled the second-highest number of votes and 4000 votes ahead of the third-placed Mr Siddharthan. Between Siddharthan and Raviraj the gap is in the few hundreds. The entire story is bizarre.

In any case, the way our ballot counting is done there is absolutely no room for foul play.

I do not want to comment on the conduct of Mrs Raviraj during this election campaign. She was our party’s female candidate. She was also a first-time contestant. It is regrettable that she has lost.”

(By Chinthika de Silva)

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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