The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is making a determined bid to postpone the local government (LG) elections to be held soon. The Regulation of Election Expenditure (REE) Bill, widely viewed as part of the government’s strategy to delay the LG polls, is to be taken up for debate, today (19). The SLPP and the UNP are set to rush it through the House. They have the required numbers to have it ratified with a simple majority although they are afraid of facing popular elections.   

The Opposition has claimed that if the REE Bill is passed in a hurry, the Election Commission (EC) will be required to formulate regulations in keeping with the new law and the LG polls will have to be postponed as a result. It has therefore proposed an amendment to the Bill to the effect that the new law to be made will not apply to the upcoming LG polls, but the government has not accommodated it for obvious reasons.

Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella told the parliament on Wednesday that Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had agreed to postpone the REE Bill by one month, but the government had decided to take it up for debate immediately.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told the parliament on Wednesday that the government was striving to delay the LG polls with the help of the REE Bill, but the Opposition would take to the streets to safeguard the people’s franchise in such an eventuality. The JVP has also issued a similar warning to the government.

What is playing out in the parliament at present reminds us of what happened in 2017, when the UNP-led Yahapalana government employed a similar method to postpone the Provincial Council elections. It introduced some changes to the Provincial Council Elections Act by stuffing the amendment Bill with a slew of sections at the committee stage to postpone the PC polls indefinitely. The SLFP, the JVP, the TNA and the former UNPers who are in the SJB today voted for that Bill while the Joint Opposition members, who are currently in the SLPP, opposed it vehemently. Today, the SLPP and the UNP have closed ranks and are all out to postpone the LG polls, which they are scared of facing while the SLFP, the SBJ and the JVP are trying to put paid to their efforts.

The timing of the presentation of the REE Bill and the government’s inordinate hurry to secure its passage while the process of accepting nominations is underway has caused serious concern to election observers, and other pro-democracy groups. Several such organizations—TISL (Transparency International Sri Lanka), PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections, CMEV (the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence) and IRES (Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies)—have come together to safeguard the people’ franchise vis-à-vis the government’s alleged efforts to postpone the LG polls.

The collective of civil society outfits has said the REE Bill is replete with deficiencies and a far cry from what they asked for. They have said what they had in mind was a law to regulate election campaign financing, prevent undue influence of donors over candidates, parties and independent groups, create a level playing field for all candidates including new entrants and underrepresented groups and reduce excessive and illegal spending on elections including by means such as the misuse of public funds and vote-buying.

To be effective, the law should also provide for a robust monitoring and enforcement mechanism by both the authorities and citizens, the election monitors have said, noting that the Bill is woefully inadequate to serve the purpose of regulating the role of money in election campaigns. “It bans campaign contributions from certain parties but does not impose any limit on how much funding a candidate, party or independent group can receive from any source, allowing space for undue influence, the collective has said, stressing that the Bill must not be used to delay the holding of the LG elections.

“The proposed procedure to enforce spending limits is also inadequate. The Bill only provides that candidates should submit audited accounts to the Election Commission of Sri Lanka, which will notify the public of their availability for perusal. An effective law would require the maintenance and disclosure of all separate accounts of candidates, parties or independent groups to the ECSL, and would also make such information digitally accessible to the public, enabling easy scrutiny, and an opportunity to digitally identify irregularities.”

The government has not cared to rectify these deficiencies and is in a rush to have the Bill passed as soon as possible.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s decision to hold a party leaders’ meeting with the participation of President Ranil Wickremesinghe on the REE Bill threw the parliament into turmoil on Wednesday (18), with the SJB and the JVP-led NPP protesting. Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella said the Speaker should not have invited the President, who, he said, was interfering in the affairs of the parliament while pretending to be keen to strengthen the legislature. The SJB and the NPP boycotted the meeting, attended by the President, on Wednesday afternoon.

Interestingly, SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena and SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera were present at the meeting much to the surprise and annoyance of the other Opposition MPs. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been at loggerheads, and the SLFP was expected to side with the SJB and the NPP over the REE Bill.

Sirisena’s participation at Wednesday’s meeting, where President Wickremesinghe was present, could be considered an indication that the SLFP is willing to soften its stand on the government. Now that the Supreme Court has ordered Sirisena to pay Rs. 100 million as compensation to the Easter Sunday victims for his failure to protect them against the National Thowheed Jamaath terrorists in 2019, the government is coming under pressure to have criminal proceedings instituted against him and others on the basis of the Supreme Court determination. This is a worrisome proposition for Sirisena. Is he making overtures to the government in a bid to avoid criminal proceedings? This is the question some key figures in the newly-formed Freedom People’s Alliance (FPA), which consists of the SLFP, the SLPP dissidents and others—are asking. They think the SLFP has decided to go it alone at the LG polls in most districts because Sirisena is trying to patch up differences with the government. The FPA, which is contesting the LG elections under the helicopter symbol, has got off to a bumpy start, as a result.

Meanwhile, the government insists that the REE Bill will have no impact on the upcoming LG polls, and its intention is to ensure that campaign expenditure will be regulated properly. It has accused the Opposition of crying wolf. But it cannot be expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, given its fear of elections and desperation to put off the LG polls. What it is planning to do will be seen soon after the ratification of the Bill.




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