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2019 Presidential Election Sri Lanka

Presidential Election 2019: Key areas under scrutiny of election observer groups – Yoshitha Perera

Image: European Union (EU) election observers look on as election officials carry ballot boxes to be transferred to a main counting centre after the presidential election voting centres closed, in Colombo (AFP)

Sri Lanka’s eighth presidential election, with a record number of 35 candidates vying for the highest office of the state, concluded on Sunday. While polling was underway on Saturday, a number of independent parties and non-governmental organizations (NGO) conducted their election observations, in accordance with international election standards. Local and foreign observers who arrived in the island were deployed to polling stations across the country to monitor the polling process. Presenting their observations were two significant international election observers.

Observing the country’s legal framework as well as the electoral system, the monitors detailed their findings at media briefings held earlier this week. Their findings were based on election administration and election preparation, voter registration, candidate registration, the overall campaign environment, campaign finance and media environment.


  • Urged people and newly elected leaders to be more inclusive during future elections
  • Implement legal reforms on campaign finances 
  • Regulate instances of bias, hate speech and disinformation 
  • Biased election coverage continued on both state and private media affected whole process 
  • Women’s participation is largely insufficient 
  • Reconsider the use of religious places as polling stations 

Local election observers The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) and Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) noted that the presidential election took place without extensive violence with a high voter turnout of between 80-85 percent.

Concluding their presidential election observations, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) and the Commonwealth Election Observers stressed that the country should reform its legal framework to enhance the power of the Election Commission (EC) while urging the citizens and newly-elected leaders to be more inclusive at future elections.

According to observers the election took place in a largely free and fair environment, mostly free of violence, while the electoral process was well-managed by the Election Commission. The Daily Mirror focused on highlighting several key areas which came under the scrutiny of these local and foreign independent election observers.

In 2019 presidential election, the entire campaign on the ground was largely seen as peaceful and calm.

Legal Framework and electoral system 

In the EU-EOM’s preliminary statement on election observations, the team identified that the legal framework in the country is adequate in conducting democratic elections in line with Sri Lanka’s global commitments, despite some gaps and weaknesses.

The EU-EOM team recognized the country as a state party to main international human rights treaties related to democratic elections, such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and Disabilities (CPRD) etc.

However, the team’s preliminary report observed that the Constitution does not permit the Supreme Court to review any existing laws to ensure harmony with fundamental rights. As examples, laws which exclude certain citizens from voting cannot be challenged, contrary to the international standards and some important gaps as the Constitution does not recognize a right of privacy.

“There is a need of a Data Regulation Authority in the country and to introduce a legal framework for the personal data protection,” the team said.

Presenting the mission’s preliminary statement, Chief Observer Marisa Matias said the present legal framework required important reforms to address enduring gaps, restrictions and legal uncertainties. It was also highlighted that introducing certain legal aspects to the EC are positive elements which can minimise offences during election process.
“Fines and sanctions for certain offences have not been revised up to 40 years and there is a failure in the Parliament to pass laws clarifying the EC’s constitutional powers resulted in limits to its capacity to issue regulations in certain processes during an election,” they highlighted.

While emphasizing on long term procedures to an election the Commonwealth Election Observation team also said that the country should focus on implementing a system of transparency during the entire election process adding that the EC should be more independent at future elections.

Chairman of the Commonwealth Observation team Prosper Bani (Pic by Pradeep Dilrukshana)

Campaign Environment and Campaign Finance 

In the 2019 presidential election, the entire campaign on the ground was largely seen as peaceful and calm. Although there were few violent incidents, the procedure was well managed by the EC. Throughout the campaign, legal restrictions were in force against the use of a wide variety of political advertising, including flags and stickers, observers noted.

The EU and the Commonwealth observation teams also urged Sri Lankans and their newly-elected leaders to be more inclusive during future elections. In the preliminary report EU-EOM team mentioned that the highest-profile candidates, Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa had attracted large number of crowds at their rallies. Chief Observer Marisa Matias said that as long-term missions, the country should focus on implementing legal reforms on campaign finance and to regulate instances of bias, hate-speech and disinformation.

“There was a peaceful campaign on the ground contrasted with divisive incidents with hate-speech and disinformation which traditionally spread around social media. The absence of campaign finance law and biased election coverage continued on both state and private media affected the whole process,” she said.

While EU and Commonwealth observation teams noted the importance of the campaign finance law, both teams stressed that the country is suffering with a lack of campaign finance regulation. In the EU-EOM’s preliminary report the team mentioned that in the country there are no limits on contributions or spending, and no disclosure requirements, including of the origin of funding, reinforcing an uneven playing field.

“Candidates are required only to declare their assets but financial sanctions for non-compliance are insignificant. The country should focus on an initiative to reform a campaign finance law to protect the transparency of the whole election,” she said.

Reiterating the need the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) Chairman Prosper Bani said that there is a need for mechanisms to regulate campaign finance in order to ensure transparency, accountability and an even playing field for all candidates.

Media Environment 

One of the most important facts mentioned by both observation teams was private and state media biasness in favour of the two main candidates. The media environment in the country is diverse, with many outlets. The Constitution itself guarantees freedom of expression and the right of access to information. But the media related legal framework was only limited to the EC media guidelines for which compliance is only required by state media.

“The EC has constitutional power to issue guidelines to all state and private media but only state media have legal duty to follow those guidelines. However, the media biasness largely affected the whole election process,” EU observation team said.

“Private media was largely unregulated. We recommend that at upcoming elections, both private and state media be independently regulated under a legal framework,” Chairman of the Commonwealth Observation team Prosper Bani said, echoing the observations of the EU.

While EU and Commonwealth observation teams noted the importance of the campaign finance law, both teams stressed that the country is suffering with a lack of campaign finance regulation

Women in participation in politics

The election legal framework for women’s participation is largely insufficient which was evident with only a single female representation.

EU-EOM observed that weak rules for inclusion of women in political parties, unregulated campaign finance that further obstructs women’s candidacies, and lack of an independent monitoring and implementation commission on women’s rights. Both teams had identified the fact of implementing more legal and social structures to increase women’s participation in politics in the country. However both observer groups complemented the inclusion of a commendable number of women officials participating in the polling process.

Issues observed over campaign period need long term solutions: Local election monitors

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) in it’s concluding statement on the 2019 presidential election noted that the EC was notably more effective on polling day than during the campaign period.

According to CMEV, a total number of incidents recorded by the time polls closed was 196. In comparison to the 2015 number of 222, the incidents saw a minor reduction , they said. An overall decrease in incidents of direct violence including assault, intimidation and threats were observed while at least two incidents of serious assault were reported. CMEV made special note of the attack on buses transporting Muslim voters from Puttalam to Mannar, involving obstruction of vehicles, adding that it was the most serious incidence of violence reported on polling day. The organisation has urged the EC to carry out a complete investigation into the serious infringement of voter safety and rights.

Some instances of voter identification issues as well as the slew of fake news and hate speech were highlighted as aras which need serious attention. The organisation said it also received positive reports on election day, commending both election officials and police officers who worked to remove obstructions and barriers to vote.

Meanwhile People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) in their election day report noted that despite several incidents, the 2019 presidential election was the most peaceful and lawful election in recent times. They said that most reported incidents were dealt with promptly and effectively by the Police in cooperation with the Election Commission.

An attempt to set up unauthorized checkpoints in the North by security forces, five cases of assault, seven complaints of voter impersonation, four arrests of voters taking photographs of their marked ballot papers, one case of a voter attempting to smuggle the ballot paper and two arrests for distributing election propaganda, were highlighted in the report. The total number of complaints received by PAFFREL on Election Day was 158 with 42 complaints against illegal propaganda activities, 31 complaints against coercion of voters and 20 complaints against illegal transportation of voters. Among several issues highlighted by PAFFREL was difficulty in accessing some polling stations, which required voters to walk several kilometers in remote areas while some polling stations were deemed inaccessible to disabled persons. The need to enable those who are not registered to vote through a base registry which is valid for a longer period, was also mentioned in its report. Stressing on the need to regulate state and private media behaviour during election, PAFFREL observed several key issues. “There was a big disproportion in time allocated to candidates and to programmes attacking their opponents. The use of social media and fake news during the pre-election, polling period and on the Election Day violates all the election regulations of the country. Public officers who are not permitted to engage in political activities made use of the lacuna in the law to use social media for propaganda purposes,” the report said. Both CMEV and PAFFREL urged the Election Commission to reconsider the use of religious places of worship being used as polling stations.

DM

2019 Presidential Election Sri Lanka

In Gotabaya’s Lanka: Many fear the rise of majoritarian sentiment in Sri Lanka – Ahilan Kadirgamar

Image: Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (AP/ File)

In Sri Lanka, with the longest history of universal suffrage in Asia, every election excites the nation, and that will be the case with the upcoming parliamentary polls.

Less than a fortnight after Sri Lanka’s November 16 presidential elections, the country is faced with two realities. One, a new regime buoyed by its triumphant support base and eager to consolidate an iron political grip. Second, a political opposition in utter disarray, with some citizens consumed by anxiety.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascent to the presidency has made his supporters euphoric that the country is finally on the path of security, development and prosperity. On the other hand, the UNP, whose candidate Sajith Premadasa lost with over 42 per cent of the votes, is in shambles. Instead of mounting a strong oppositional force, the party has descended to infighting over leadership.

These dynamics of power consolidation and political disarray in the two main political camps and unbridled triumphalism and widespread fear across the voter divide are threatening the significant democratic space gained over the last five years.

In this scenario, critics of the Rajapaksas and more broadly, Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil minorities that voted overwhelmingly against Gotabaya, are paralysed by fear, as the majoritarian rule they dreaded is before them,

Following the presidential election, an interim government with a new cabinet of ministers is in place, with the president’s brother Mahinda as the prime minister. But it is the upcoming parliamentary elections that will determine the balance of power to rule the country over the next five years. The regime will eye a two-thirds majority in parliament, necessary for major constitutional changes.

At immediate risk after the parliamentary elections are the 13th and 19th amendments to the Constitution — for power-sharing and democratic checks on executive power. Both amendments were rushed into existence for political expediency, and both are broadly seen to be incomplete.

However, any change to them by the Rajapaksa regime are likely to be deemed regressive.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s political economic trajectory is shifting gears, but without considering the many lost opportunities in the post-war decade. And as the country’s economic troubles aggravate amidst a global downturn, will the new government learn from previous failures? Or, will they opt to address long-festering political and economic woes by consolidating authoritarian populist power?

While a decisive election victory might make a leader seem invincible, much of the strength and stability of his new government will depend on how it addresses the economic crisis. Since the Easter terror attacks, state revenues have dropped drastically, prompting austerity measures and across-the-board cuts on state investment. Sri Lanka’s trickling economic growth, rising foreign debt, disregard for domestic production and neglect of the rural economy, are going to be major challenges. Neither the president’s technocratic champions nor the prime minister’s populist measures are going to solve these problems.

How, then, will the new government consolidate power? It will be a combination of the president’s authoritarian moves, veiled in the promise of technocratic efficiency and seeming aloofness from politics, and the prime minister’s hard-nosed political moves in parliament, with populist manoeuvring. The dual power centre will try to discipline and disable the judiciary, media and people’s movements. They will seek validation from their long-nurtured nationalist social base, may re-activate the security apparatus for surveillance and crackdowns, and lean on the most forthcoming external actors for financial support — be it India, China, the US or the capital markets.

Therefore, the need of the hour is dissent — in parliament, in the public sphere, and within communities. If polarising and dividing form the mechanics of consolidating power, it is through bridging divides and uniting people — across ethnic and religious groups — that resistance can hold.

Ideologically, the first wall of defence should be against the Islamophobic forces that have gained traction among the majority population. Politically, dissident parliamentarians should find the wherewithal to protect the hard-won liberal freedoms. Organisationally, trade unions and movements should prepare to struggle against the neo-liberal transmutation of their social and economic life.

In Sri Lanka, with the longest history of universal suffrage in Asia, every election excites the nation, and that will be the case with the upcoming parliamentary polls. Turning the democratic clock back may not work for even the craftiest authoritarian populist regimes, but that also depends on the reconfiguration of oppositional parliamentary forces and more importantly, galvanising resistance.

IE

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2019 Presidential Election Sri Lanka

Post elections Social media hate speech spikes up! -Muqaddasa Wahid

  • social media users erroneously believe that Katuwapitiya is a part of the Negombo electorate
  • These messages were not only degrading the people of Negombo, but were also an insult to those who had been killed
  • These hate mongers went as far as to say that those voters who voted for Sajith were terrorists.

Any Sri Lankan social media user would have noted the rise in post election hate speech since the results of the Presidential Election was announced. The post election hate speech mainly revolved on two groups of voters; the voters of the Negombo electorate and the voters in the electorates of the North and the East. In these electorates, the majority voted in favour of the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate, Sajith Premadasa.

Since many social media users erroneously believe that Katuwapitiya is a part of the Negombo electorate, the residents of Katuwapitiya became the latest target for the online social media hate posts. Due to St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitya being one of the places that the Easter Sunday carnage took place at, many expected the residents of Negombo would vote in favour of Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. When the results showed that Negombo polled 53.03% in favour of Sajith Premadasa and 38.23% in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, social media users were quick to spread hatred in terms of posts and comments. Some of the posts and comments that were seen on social media had messages such as “The residents of Negombo should be bombed again”, “Hereafter even if missiles hit Negombo, we won’t sympathize with them”, “Shame on you Negombo. Voted for the bombers who killed your people”, “Good that the bombers bombed Negombo, if not the ones who died also would have voted for Sajith”. These messages were not only degrading the people of Negombo, but were also an insult to those who had been killed.

Premadasa won by a comfortable margin over Rajapaksa in the North and the East. This caused an outrage on social media as many started comparing the electoral map to the LTTE Eelam map. These hate mongers went as far as to say that those voters were terrorists. Some users even requested President Rajapaksa to not carry out any development or welfare projects in those areas. Some posts stated that the military should be sent back to those areas to torture the residents. Some posts endorsed ethnic cleansing, severe racism and incited hate and violence.

You voted for the side with the culprits of the Easter Sunday Attacks. Now we don’t care even if you were attacked by not only bombs but even missiles.

Citizens rise to minimise and remove hate content

Whilst there were supporters who shared this hate content, there were many who were appalled and opposed the hate content on social media. There were also few users who engaged in the monitoring process, trying to minimise and remove the shared hate content. One of them is Kumudini David, a child rights advocate and vocalist. She was one of the people Facebook reached out to after the Easter Sunday attacks, to help them minimise hate speech on Facebook. In this backdrop, she decided to step up and minimise and report the post election hate content.

Stating that she did not expect the post election hate speech, she inferred that the cause behind the hate speech could be that the clear demarcation in the preference in the North and the East reminded the Sri Lankans of the bid for the Eelam and that the people felt that the Negombo people were traitors.

When asked about the monitoring process, David said, “I’ve received over 300 links sent by many people horrified by the amount of hate they saw. I’ve sent those links to the Facebook Reporting Team and they’ve removed the ones that violate their Community Standards.” She also added that if one sees a hate speech on Facebook, to report it immediately.
“To prevent hate speech in future elections, the parties need to take what occurred to account and campaign responsibly. All parties must make every effort to maintain the peace in our small island,” she stated.

EU EOM’s views

Speaking to Daily Mirror, the Deputy Chief Observer, Dimitra Ioannou and Press Officer, Paul Anderson, of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), who arrived in the country to monitor the recently concluded Presidential Elections, stated that the EU EOM continues to follow the posts on social media as a part of its continuing monitoring process.

“In our preliminary statement we view the overall environment in social media during the campaign period, where, for example, we note the negative effect of ‘divisive rhetoric, hate speech and disinformation in traditional and social media as marring a peaceful campaign.’ Hate speech anywhere, inside and outside of elections, is to be condemned,” they said.

Stating that the EU EOM had noted that Facebook hadn’t taken appropriate measures to ensure adherence to campaign silence rules, the EU EOM will submit a final report, which will contain recommendations to improve the electoral process; including in the
sphere of social media. “This is our third observation mission where we have deployed a dedicated social media analyst leading a team of locally recruited analysts,” they revealed.

Commenting on how to prevent such a situation from occurring in the future, Anderson stated that the EU EOM will be hosting a series of round table discussions with key national stakeholders to discuss the best methodology to approach the issue.

“Hate speech is due to voters falling into the trap of biased media” -CMEV

Commenting on the issue of hate content on social media, National Coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) Manjula Gajanayake stated that during the 2015 Presidential Elections, social media impacted in a positive manner, but during the 2019 Presidential Elections, it had impacted negatively. He also noted that there was an increased spike in hate speech. He also revealed that Rs. 7.5 billion has been allocated to the Elections Commission (EC) to manage election dispute and suggested that the EC should have a separate unit to inquire into and manage complaints regarding election related social media hate speech.
“Facebook could have managed the pre-election hate speech better, but I’d like to mention that due to the combined efforts of CMEV and People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), during the cooling period, we managed to remove 50% of the hate speech and public political advertisements,” he noted. He also added that the AdLibrary option, which is usually activated during election time by Facebook, was not activated for Sri Lanka. He also noted that compared to Facebook, Twitter had an effective response to remove and minimise hate speech on its platform.

He stated that the CMEV met DIG Ajith Rohana, Sri Lanka Police and the EC to discuss the issue of election related social media hate speech. “The police stated that under Presidential Elections Act No 15 of 1981, there aren’t any provisions regarding social media. They stated that the act has to be amended to include social media,” Gajanayake disclosed.

When asked about the possible reasons for the hate speech on social media, Gajanayake stated that the public is misinformed by biased media and fake information isn’t being filtered properly. “If legal action is taken against those who disseminate fake information and propagate hate speech then, these issues would be minimised,” he opined.

DM

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2019 Presidential Election Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Presidential Election 2019: Polarised vote, Issues of Free & Fair Election & Post Election Developments

Sri Lanka Brief Presidential Election Update No 02.

Polarised vote

The president elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) of SLPP and Sajith Premadasa (SP) of NDF respectively received 52.25% & 41.99 of the total votes polled in the presidential election held on 16 November 2019.  This numbers could be misleading.

The result shows unprecedented level of polarisation on the ethnic and religious lines in the country.  GR received 65% plus votes in 4 Southern districts with 95% Sinhalese population. They are Hambantota (S-97%), Matara S-94%) Galle (S- 94%) and Monaragala (S-95%).

SP received or rather GR was rejected by over 60 % of votes polled in five districts with 60 -99% of minority population: Jaffna (T- 84%), Vanni (T-82%), Batticloa (T-79%), Trincomalee (T-72%), Digamdulla (T-63%). Only other district SR received over 50% votes polled is Nuwaraeliya where Tamil population is 56%.

This clearly shows while Sinhalese Buddhist voted GR en masse, Tamils and Muslims rejected him in much larger percentage.

At the oath taking ceremony, Gotabaya Rajapaksa attributed his success to the “extraordinary blessings of the Buddhist monks”. “The main message of the election is that it was the Sinhala majority vote that allowed me to win the presidency,” he further said.

Pro – Rajapaksa social media launched abusive attacks against Tamil and Muslims in the country. A vehicle convoy carrying ACMC leader came under attack on 24 November. In few places around Colombo Tamil street name boards were vandalised but the Govt. quickly restored them.

Issuing a statement Tamil National Alliance leader R.Sampanthan said that by their vote “Tamil people have sent a clear message to the leaders of our country and to the international community, that the Tamil people are firm in achieving their rights, within a united undivided indivisible country.”

Election Environment

Presidential Election 2019 has been generally peaceful according to local and international observers. One of the two major local election observer groups, CMEV said  that “the lower numbers of election related violations reflect a greater capacity by the Election Commission to conduct elections in a generally free and fair manner.”

In its Preliminary statement on 16 November presidential election the European Union election observation mission (EU EOM) said that although the “presidential election was largely free of violence and technically well-managed, but unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources and media bias affected the level playing field.”

Acknowledging that the campaign environment was largely peaceful and the fundamental freedoms were broadly respected the Preliminary Statement of the Commonwealth Observer Group noted the need for mechanisms to regulate campaign finance in order to ensure transparency, accountability and an even playing field.

In the press conference to announce the final election result, the Chair of the Election Commission expressed his strong disappointment of the bias media behaviour of both private and state media during the election period. “If this situation is going to continue we do not need to have elections but can ask media owners to select and elect MPs” he said sarcastically.

“We recommend that ahead of the next election, both private and public media are independently regulated through a legal framework. We will elaborate on this issue in our final report,”  noted the  Preliminary Statement of the Commonwealth Observer Group.

“Coordinated dissemination of outright false and/or demeaning information presented in various formats and across digital platforms dwarfed credible news threads. Overall, a damaging online environment distorted public debate and curbed voters’ access to factual information on political choices, an important element for making a fully informed choice,” EU EOM report noted.

Religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks campaigning for GR during religious preaching too has been cited as a matter of concern by election observers.

Post-Election Developments

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister on 22 November after former MP Ranil Wickremasinghe resigned. MR has taken 8-9 ministries in a 15 member interim cabinet. Constitutionally parliament can only be dissolved on 1 March 2020. GR has stated that he will dissolve the parliament in the earliest date possible. Parliamentary election are expected to be held either at the end of April or early May 2020.

On 19 November National organiser of the SLPP Basil Rajapaksa has stated that they will change the constitution and 19th amendment to the constitution should be abolished. 19th  amendment introduced independent commissions and curbed the powers of the executive presidency. To amend the constitution 2/3 majority of the members of parliamentary is necessary.

On 19 November President Rajapaksa appointed retired Major General Kamal Gooneratne as the secretary to defence ministry.  General Gooneratne wants those who supported a new constitution for Sri Lanka dead, because he proposes they are in fact traitors. He normalises death to traitors as something natural, and inevitable. His desire to punish traitors extends post-mortem. He doesn’t want Buddhist priests to bless them or to even visit their homes. (See video in Sinhala here from seconds 2.17)

On 21 November Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Director SSP Shani Abeysekara, who  led CID investigations into the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, the assault on journalist Upali Tennekoon, the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge and the disappearance of 11 youth was transferred.  He was replaced by  SSP W. Thilakaratna who was in charge of MR’s security. Some new outlets have reported that govt is planning to arrest SSP Sharni Abeysekara on false charges.

On 24th November facing threats, Inspector of Police (IP) Nishantha Silva, a top investigator in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) fled to Switzerland with his family.

Accusing CID officers Shani Abeysekera & Nishantha Silva who investigated crimes committed under his orders President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that “the man who did the inquiries against us Nishantha Silva has fled to Geneva today. (24)”

On 21 November a tweep named @garikaalan, who was providing real time developments related to human rights of the Tamil people in North and East of Sri Lanka, left the platform leaving this message. “Decided to leave this platform for a while due to security concerns coupled with systematic racist-hatred-threatening campaign levelled against me soon after alleged war criminal @GotabayaR  took office; deeply grateful for those who supported me in past.”

On 22 November Sanjana Hattotuwa (@sanjanah), founder editor of “groundviews” tweeted that “Written to Sunday Island for around 4+yrs & not a single column rejected. This Sunday’s column, on GR’s first week in office, denied publication by Editor based on “orders from above”. Will appear on blog as usual, but sad fear+self-censorship already set in.”

Read as a PDF:SLB UPDATE No 02 Presidential Election 2019

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