Local Government elections, seen to be close on hand only just days earlier, have become yet so far now. The expected January 20, 2018 poll may now not happen.
This time it is over another mundane issue – the creation of more Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Nuwara Eliya district. This is a long standing demand from the plantation sector pro-Government political parties. The Government heeded their request when the Elections Commission is readying for the local polls.
It comes amidst widespread belief that the Government wants to further delay the local elections. That too, in the aftermath of rushing through the Provincial Council Election (Amendment) law in Parliament. This effectively blocked early polls to PCs. Already, the Councils in the Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provinces have come under Governor’s rule. A five-member Delimitation Committee, in keeping with the new law, is now busy demarcating boundaries of provinces, a time consuming task. Its first priority has become the three provinces where the PCs are not functioning now. Even if the committee keeps to a declared deadline of March next year to complete this task, officials say a delay cannot be ruled out. This is in the light of the appeal process when electorates coming under a province are earmarked. Moreover, the same process would have to be extended to other provinces too.
Aggravating public apprehensions were remarks by Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. He told the Sunday Times, “There is no necessity to go through a Delimitation Committee process to create new local bodies. The Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government is empowered to establish them.” He cited an instance in the Polonnaruwa district where the Ministry took a similar course of action and resolved a festering issue. The reference is to the carving out of an area from the Tamankaduwa Pradeshiya Sabha and creating a new Municipal Council for Polonnaruwa, President Sirisena’s home base. A similar change is also expected in the Horana electorate. However, Deshapriya said, a final Gazette notification would be required after the creation of such bodies, so elections can be called.
In fact, five prominent polls monitoring bodies in the country went in delegation for a meeting with Deshapriya on Thursday. They expressed concern over current developments which they fear would delay polls further. He told the group that the Minister had the power to create new local bodies. In candid remarks he made, Deshapriya said, “I have to take some serious decisions if the Gazette is not issued.” The monitoring bodies, some financially backed by Western governments which promote democracy and free elections, are also to respond jointly if the delay is prolonged.
“The Chairman told us he is in a helpless position until a Gazette is issued. He said there was no purpose in his receiving a draft copy for he cannot act on it,” Rohana Hettiaratchchi, Executive Director of the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), said yesterday.
However, Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha, at the centre of accusations over prolonged delays, if not on his own volition, but at the behest of coalition leaders, declared, “I do not want to take the responsibility for the delay.” He told the Sunday Times, “The Cabinet of Ministers took a collective decision on Tuesday that the boundaries of Pradeshiya Sabhas in Nuwara Eliya district should be further divided to create more local bodies.”
Musthapha’s own cabinet colleague National Co-existence and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganeshan rubbished the claim that the delay to elections was the hurried creation of more Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Nuwara Eliya district. “No one can say that this proposal was brought out at the eleventh hour to delay things,” he asserted. Ganeshan told the Sunday Times, “We brought up this issue on four different occasions at the Cabinet. In Parliament, one of our members moved for an adjournment debate. I also raised issue at meetings of political party leaders.”
He said his party had prepared “proposals and handed over a file to Minister Musthapha a month ago.” He added, “No one can say that elections will be delayed due to this reason. The proposals were ready. We are asking to increase five local bodies to 12 – an addition of seven. “I have spoken at length on this matter when we discussed the new electoral system,” he pointed out. Ganeshan said his party was confident that the changes could be made in “just a few days” since an increase in the number of members in the proposed new bodies would not be necessary. “We are only seeking a separation of some to the new bodies,” he pointed out.
As the new cycle of events laid bare an apparent reluctance on the part of the coalition to hold local elections, Minister Musthapha, a one-time vice president of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) declared, “We do not want to do injustice to one minority group.” He said on Tuesday afternoon, he would conduct a discussion with all parliamentarians of the Nuwara Eliya district. They (the parties representing the plantations community) have asked for seven new councils but we have proposed three councils in each area to be divided. He raised a glimmer of hope when he said “if the discussions are successful, I will issue a Gazette notification.” Such a notification, giving the boundaries of different councils and the number of members to be elected, will be the first step to enable the Election Commission to make arrangements for a poll. In any case, he said, within two weeks he hoped to issue a Gazette notification. If he reaches accord with the Nuwara Eliya district MPs, the outcome will have to be placed for approval before the weekly Cabinet meeting on October 31. It is only thereafter, that his Ministry can set about with follow up action. These developments have all but put paid to moves to hold local elections on January 20 next year. Government sources now say it will likely be pushed back to March or even later next year.
Musthapha also commented on the format of his Gazette notification. “They are all (political parties in the hill country) asking that it should encompass all councils in one notification. I am also mindful of Government policy of conducting all polls the same day,” he said. However, whether a Gazette would cover all local bodies together awaits a decision.
The five Pradeshiya Sabhas which the plantation sector political parties want re-arranged are Nuwara Eliya (134,153 voters), Ambagamuwa (147,607 voters), Walapone (85,111 voters), Kotmale (81,445 voters) and Hanguranketa (72,980 voters). Compared to other existing local bodies in the district, the voter numbers in these five bodies are higher. For example, the Nuwara Eliya Municipal Council has only 19,938 voters, the Hatton-Dickoya Urban Council has 10,849 voters and the Talawakele–Lindula Urban Council 4,853 voters.
Opposition slams moves to postpone polls
The coalition move to cause further delays in local polls has angered Opposition political parties. “They are trying to put off elections because they are frightened of losing. They are very unpopular now. The Minister in charge is delaying issuing the Gazette under different pretexts. He is not doing what is expected of him,” declared former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the leader of the ‘Joint Opposition.’ He returned this week after a private visit to Japan. Rajapaksa forecast that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) would come “third or fourth” at a local election.
Asked whether any re-unification effort was under way with one time SLFPers now supporting him, Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times “They (the SLFP) can join the ‘Joint Opposition’ and field candidates. Of course, that will be entirely on our terms.“ With those remarks, Rajapaksa was effectively shutting the door for any last minute rapprochement between the two rival factions of the SLFP. Not that such a move was seriously under way. The gap for rapprochement was widening, not narrowing. To the contrary, conscious of this reality, Sirisena has chosen to oust SLFP electoral organisers who are loyalists of Rajapaksa. “On the other hand,” Rajapaksa declared “if they do not want to contest with us, (‘JO’), the UNP and the SLFP can join together and contest. This will not happen either since yahapalanaya is in tatters”, he said. Rajapaksa will lead the ‘Joint Opposition’ campaign at the local polls.