Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has pressed for holding the much delayed local council elections in January in a move that has taken the Joint Opposition off guard.
The election due in mid 2015 was delayed because the previous administration had failed to complete legislation to conduct local government polls under a hybrid system replacing proportional representation.
However, the new government too dragged its feet in demarcating electoral boundaries in line with the new law. The delay was a blessing for President Maithripala Sirisena. It gave him more time to tighten his grip on his party.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) stalwarts earlier this week pressed for early local elections because they were confident of not only electoral success, but an opportunity to split the Joint Opposition.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa-led JO, a formidable faction of Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had hoped that three provincial councils will go to the polls before smaller local councils, giving them the opportunity for a good showing at the highest level of local government.
The North-Central and Sabaragamuwa councils, which completed their five-year terms earlier this month and in late September respectively, were seen as favourable to the JO. The term of the Eastern Provincial Council also expired in September setting the stage for PC elections ahead of the local government (LG) vote.
But, changing the voting system for PC elections too means a delay in that poll that will now follow the local government election.
Had the Provincial Councils gone to the polls first, the JO would have been able to make a bigger impact and significantly demoralise the Sirisena-faction of the SLFP. The JO had hoped to field some of its heavyweights as candidates for provincial councils along with a handful of retired military officers to get the support of ultra nationalists.
A similar strategy which the UNP adopted in Uva by getting dynamic Harin Fernando to resign from parliament and contest the 2014 council elections paid rich dividends by snowballing into the bigger success that toppled Rajapaksa.
However, this time, the JO is unable to get their MP’s to resign and contest the smallest local government units. Historically, the party in power at the central government level has swept LG elections.
Political sources said the UNP was conscious that its popularity had waned since forming a government in January 2015, but stalwarts were confident of facing the LG polls and making significant gains.
The November budget is expected to be election-oriented and offer sweeteners to the electorate by way of customs duty reductions on top of subsidised loans to small and medium scale entrepreneurs.
At last week’s cabinet meeting, Local Government and Provincial Councils minister Faiszer Musthapha, was under pressure to speed up the local government election process and he promised to issue the gazette notification next week clearing the way for the polls by the end of January.