by Vishvanath

Something of immense political significance happened on Tuesday (Dec. 06), but it passed without attracting much attention. Perhaps, political commentators were preoccupied with the ongoing budget debate and the unfolding Sri Lanka Cricket drama, which has apparently eclipsed all other issues.

The annual budget of the SLPP-controlled Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) failed to be carried on Dec.06, as some of the ruling party members turned against their Chairman and voted with the Opposition. This PS is of crucial importance politically because it is the only local government institution currently functional with elected representatives, in the country. The defeat of its budget is the last thing that the SLPP must have wanted with about 10 days to go for its national convention to be held on a grand scale in Colombo. SLPP MP Namal Rajapaksa has declared that the upcoming event is aimed at mobilising the grassroots support for the party. 

The SLPP bagged the Elpitiya PS in November 2019, a few weeks before the last presidential election, and its impressive win became a harbinger of its winning streak. It won 17 out of 29 seats in that PS with the UNP obtaining 07 seats, the UNPF 03 and the JVP 02. The UNP was holding on to power in the parliament at that time, but could not prevent its electoral weakness being exposed because it had to contest the Elpitiya PS election.

There is nothing more worrisome for a government whose popularity is on the wane than a test of strength in the form of an electoral contest ahead of a major election, presidential or general. Hence, the Yahapalana government consisting of the UNP, a section of the SLFP, and their allies postponed the Provincial Council (PC) elections in 2017 by amending the PC Elections Act, but it had to hold the local government (LG) polls in early 2018, and they proved to be its undoing.

The LG elections are popularly called mini polls or even kaanu-bokku (drain-culvert) elections because the local government institutions are not vested with much power and carry out relatively minor tasks, but they assume the same importance as national elections when they occur towards the tail end of a government in power and prompt even political party leaders including the President, and the Prime Minister to campaign hard for the ruling party; the Opposition also goes all out to improve its electoral performance at the local government level with an eye to national elections. Why the incumbent SLPP-UNP administration, whose approval rating has plummeted to 9%, has postponed the local government elections is understandable.

The SLPP scored a spectacular victory at the 2018 LG polls, and the uneasy unity of the UNP-SLFP government did not survive that electoral debacle; the two parties had to contest the elections separately to retain their vote banks. A few months later they fell out and started clashing, with President Maithripala Sirisena going so far as to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointing his sworn enemy, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in October 2018. His plan however went awry due to a Supreme Court ruling, and he had to swallow his pride and reappoint Wickremesinghe Prime Minister two months later.  

Despite its victory against the SLPP and President Sirisena in the parliament, the UNP found itself in an unenviable position ahead of the 2019 presidential election when the Supreme Court, which had issued an injunction in January 2018, preventing the Election Commission (EC) from holding the Elpitiya PS election due to a case filed by the DUNF, whose nomination was rejected, ordered that the delayed polls be held as soon as possible. There was no way the Yahapalana government, which the UNP was propping up with the help of the TNA and the JVP, could postpone that election. The EC promptly carried out the Supreme Court order and the SLPP won handsomely and gained a turbo boost for its presidential election campaign.

The SLPP national convention is aimed at preparing the ruling party politicians and supporters for the national elections to be held next year. The defeat of the Elpitiya PS budget could not have come at a worse time for the SLPP; seven of its 17 MPs voted against the budget, according to media reports. This could be thought to portend more trouble for the government on the political front while it is struggling to tackle the economic crisis. Moreover, Sri Lankan politicians have earned notoriety for superstitious beliefs, and the SLPP is full of them. They will consider the setback in the symbolically important southern PS at this particular juncture as a bad omen.

Isolated yet crucial elections

One sees some similarities between the Elpitiya PS election in 2019 and the snap Southern PC election held in March 1994 a few months ahead of the General and Presidential elections in that year. Both contests assumed the same importance of national elections. 

The PCs polls were held in May 1993 countrywide except in the North and the East, in the aftermath of two high-profile assassinations—those of DUNF leader Lalith Athulathmudali and President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The UNP managed to obtain 27 seats, the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) 22 seats and the DUNF 06 seats in the Southern PC. M. S. Amarasiri of the UNP was sworn in as the Chief Minister, but his appointment was successfully challenged in the Court of Appeal and he had to step down as he could not muster a working majority. SLFP stalwart Amarasiri Dodangoda (PA) was appointed Chief Minister. Subsequently, one of the PA councillors disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and the UNP was accused of having abducted him to deny the PA a majority in the council and thereby defeat its budget, which could not be passed. The Southern PC was dissolved and a fresh election was held in March in 1994. (The councillor who went missing returned home subsequently!)

The PA under the leadership of the then Western Province Chief Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga defeated the UNP decisively at the 1994 Southern PC election by winning 32 seats as opposed to the UNP’s 23. That marked the beginning of the end of the 17-year UNP rule. The PA went on to win the general and presidential elections that followed in August and November, respectively.

It proved to be a huge blunder for the UNP to have caused a snap PC election to be held in the Southern Province, where the SLFP and its allies were very strong. The Elpitiya PS polls (2019) had a similar impact on the UNP-led Yahapalana government in 2019 although the UNP had no hand in its postponement of that election in 2018. Today, the SLPP is experiencing problems in that symbolically important local council in the run-up to its national convention.