Here we go again on the merry go round of local government elections, thanks to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the government and the Elections Commission (EC).

The ninth of March, the date originally fixed for the poll has come and gone and all we can say with confidence is that there was no election on that day. The first round has been won by Wickremesinghe and his scheming and manipulative ministers and officials.

Hats off to the think tank of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). While the other major opposition party, the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) was busy organising rally after rally featuring their leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the SJB submitted a fundamental rights petition to the Supreme Court challenging the decision of the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance to withhold funds for the election.

The Secretary’s decision was based on a government circular which decreed that state expenses should be reserved only for ‘essential’ purposes. Elections were not on the list of ‘essential’ activities. After hearing submissions, the Supreme Court last week issued an interim injunction on the Secretary preventing him from withholding funds for the election. The highest court in the land has fixed further review of the petition for a later date in May.

The interim injunction meant that the process of elections, stalled until then, is now reactivated. One would have expected the EC to act with alacrity and get the polls process back on track as fast possible. That didn’t happen. Instead of announcing a fresh date immediately, they dilly-dallied for a few days, dragging their feet. Then, they met earlier this week and announced April 25, a good seven weeks away, as the “most suitable date”.

After the Supreme Court order and before announcing the “most suitable date”, EC Chairman Nimal Punchihewa appeared to go out of his way to dampen enthusiasm for a quick election. “I can’t give you an assurance whether the EC could hold the election, or, if that is the case, when they will be held,” he said. In what seemed an attempt to predict what might happen, Punchihewa added for good measure that, “the Treasury can also tell us that it is more than happy to release funds to the EC but they don’t have enough cash to do so at the moment. They can release funds only in a few months,”.

As Chairman of a seemingly independent commission that is tasked with ensuring the sovereignty and franchise of millions of voters, this is a most lackadaisical approach to take, especially in the context of the many ham-fisted attempts by the government to stall the election. While the EC earned kudos for its previous attempts to conduct the poll in the face of the government’s attempts to obstruct it, its lethargy in taking decisive action when the Supreme Court gave an order raises questions about its integrity and independence.

What we saw in the lead up to the original date fixed for the poll, March 09, were a series of amateurish efforts by the government to cripple the election. These included the Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs sending a circular asking Returning Officers not to accept deposits from candidates when he had no authority to do so. Then, the Government Printer Gangani Liyanage refused to print ballot papers unless payment was made in advance! In all these crude tactics, time was of the essence.

This is precisely why the fresh date for the poll should have been close to March 09, as much as practically possible. By Punchihewa’s own admission, the poll could have been called five weeks after a new date was announced. Had the EC, which was aware that the Supreme Court would deliver its order on March 03, met on the same day and decided on a date, it could have conducted the poll as soon as April 07 and the election could have been done and dusted before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Instead, the EC, convening at a leisurely pace after the Supreme Court verdict, has now announced a date more than seven weeks hence!

In this context, the remarks made by Wickremesinghe in Parliament this week, when he gloated about obtaining funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) become relevant. After saying that the government will not hesitate to crush any protests that disrupt the economy, he tells us that stabilising the economy is his first priority. “After accomplishing this, we can decide on holding the presidential election and general election and the country can make a choice,” Wickremesinghe said.

Wickremesinghe made a buffoon of himself last week when he said that there was no election, so the question of a postponement did not arise, claiming that the poll was not legally called. Now he is silent on local government elections and has arbitrarily decided that elections can only be held, once the economy is back on track. Tell us, Mr. President, if it is not by end 2024, will you deprive us of a presidential election as well?

We can understand why Wickremesinghe detests elections. Here is a man who presided over the United National Party while suffering a record number of election defeats. Here is a man rejected by the people at the August 2020 general election who was only appointed to Parliament on the National List because his party was squabbling over who should fill its solitary National List seat. Here is a man who wasn’t elected President by a popular vote despite trying twice and failing miserably. Here is a man chosen by a few dozen Parliamentarians to become President, so they could protect the Rajapaksa legacy. Why then would such a man want elections?

Yes, a new date, April 25, has been declared for local government polls. That doesn’t mean it is guaranteed it will be held on that day. EC Chairman Punchihewa has already told us that. All we can say is that the curtain has fallen on Act 1 in this political drama stage managed by Wickremesinghe.

Await Act 2 between now and April 25.


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