Col R Hariharan
Sri Lanka is expected to hold the nation-wide local government (LG) elections on February 10, 2018. Usually, local body elections are low key affairs. However, this election is important as a mid-term appraisal of the performance of President Maithripala Sirisena- Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe government. It would also provide an indication of the future developments likely to affect the fortunes of political parties and their leaders.
Over 15.8 million people will be exercising their votes on a single day to elect 8293 member to 24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 276 divisional councils is undoubtedly major challenge for the government. Sri Lanka’s past experience in conducting elections is a mixed bag of good, bad and the ugly. It ranged from misuse of government machinery and state media, use of both muscle power and money power to disrupt rival party’s election campaigns and even fisticuffs between contestants ending in killings.
The sheer size of the elections, with over 70,000 candidates in the fray, makes the administration’s job of conducting free and fair elections even more difficult. Will the political parties and people rise up to the occasion to make it a success? Probably, this is the question haunting the minds of elections officials and police administration.
The government has already drawn plenty of flak for delaying the local elections. Reasons for the delay are many, apart from political compulsions of the ruling coalition partners. Systemic journey to conduct the poll had been tortuous. The demarcation of new local authority wards took four long years to complete the process in 2016. The mixed electoral system was much debated; the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No 1 of 2016 made it mandatory for political parties to include 25 percent women in the candidates list. The Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No 16 of 2017 changed the ratio between the first-past-post and proportional representation systems of voting from 70:30 to 60:40 to ensure fair representation of minorities.
Though local issues dominate the LG elections, they serve as a national barometer of political parties strength at the grass root level. This has made political parties nervous as they are not certain about their performance on two counts. Firstly, they are not clear how the mixed electoral system would impact their performance. Secondly, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Sirisena’s unity talks with pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of SLFP has failed. The latter will be contesting under the banner of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka Citizens Front) formed sometime back. With former president Rajapaksa sotto vocethrowing spanners into Sirisena’s works to keep his flock, SLFP’s votes in traditional support bases are likely to be split. Any adverse impact of the split has the potential to adversely affect the future of President Sirisena’s leadership of the party and his ability to contain, if not prevail over, Rajapaksa’s influence within SLFP.
As both the factors are germane to President Sirisena dominant role in the unity government, the election results could also affect the durability of the SLFP-UNP alliance and determine the longevity of the coalition government.
For the present, President Sirisena probably has better chances as he enjoys the advantage of being in power with a B+ track record, not as badly tarnished as the Rajapaaksa regime.
The LG elections will also put the durability of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by veteran political leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan under the lense. The TNA in spite of holding the majority in the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) had not been able to make good of all its election promises. Both the NPC chief minister C Wigneswaran and some of the alliance leaders like Suresh Premachandran of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) had blamed Sampanthan’s constructive and non-confrontational approach in dealing with the Sirisena government for not fulfilling the aspirations of the Tamil people. As early as January 2017, Premachandran had demanded the octogenarian leader Sampanthan and the articulate general secretary M Sumanthiran to resign from alliance leadership for below par performance.
However, TNA leadership seems to have handled the internal schism fairly well. After the EPRLF quit the alliance last month, TNA managed to finalise its candidates for the LG polls. Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s announcement that he would remain neutral in the polls would probably work better for the TNA, than its detractors.
The Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya at a meeting with political party representatives announced the guidelines for conducting election without causing inconvenience to the public. The guidelines include: allowing only one official party office per electorate; allowing display of propaganda posters only in the party office; limiting the groups canvassing for votes to ten members and conducting of election rallies only with prior police permission.
The independent election monitoring group – Peoples Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAAFREL) – has handed over to the Inspector General of Police a list of 32 candidates contesting the forthcoming LG polls with alleged criminal record of rape, murder, theft, financial frauds and corruption. The organization urged the IG to keep a close watch over these persons, during the election period. The chief opposition whip and leader of the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Anura Dissanayake has alleged that both the SLFP and the UNP had nominated tainted candidates, some of who had seven to eight criminal cases against them.
Despite such ominous signs, some hopes would be kindled to see President Sirisena starting the poll campaign saying “I am not sure who will be axed with my sword in my mission to have clean politicians.” The SLFP and UPFA participants at the meeting took a pledge to dedicate themselves to elect “educated representatives with high integrity, free of fraud and corruption to work in accordance with the conscience of the public for the protection of the motherland.” But, have we not seen such promises in the past evaporating into thin air after the elections?
In such an environment, one cannot fault Sri Lankans hoping to use the LG polls in the New Year to herald a period of constructive politics. Why not? People everywhere live only on hopes!
Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, January 2018 issue