Where to from here? That was the question on many a lip this week after it became official that local government elections will not be held as scheduled on March 09.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the nephew of former President J.R. Jayewardene who conducted the first and only referendum held in this country to postpone elections more than forty years ago, has continued his ‘bull in a china shop’ attitude after accidentally acquiring the Presidency and instigated a series of shameless moves to thwart the democratic process resulting in the postponement of the polls.

After a series of botched moves- including a circular sent by the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration- Wickremesinghe settled on more subtle steps to stall the mechanism of elections.

It came first in the form of the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance sending a circular requesting government departments to undertake only functions that are a ‘priority’, national elections not being among them. Then, the Government Printer was to say that she does not have funding to print ballot papers because the money had not been allocated to her. At the same time, the Inspector General of Police said he did not have personnel to deploy to ensure that ballot papers are printed safely.

In what appears to be a craftily written script, the Elections Commission (EC) then informed the Supreme Court that due to these obstacles, the elections could not be held on schedule. This was necessary because previously, in response to petitions submitted by parliamentarians, the EC had given an undertaking to court that the polls will be conducted on time.

Thus, the postponement of the elections became a fait accompli, in blatant violation of both accepted norms and legislative requirements.

Wickremesinghe and his government has funds to splurge on an Independence Day ceremony on a grand scale, a ‘Janaraja Perahera’ that was unheard of for decades, has scores of policemen to deploy at opposition protests and for ministerial security but cannot find the same resources to conduct a national election!

This dubious and diabolical postponement raises a multitude of serious questions. Firstly, the Constitution expressly states that “Any public officer, any employee of any public corporation, business or other undertaking vested in the Government…who refuses or fails without a reasonable cause to cooperate with the Commission, to secure the enforcement of any law relating to the holding of an election…shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred thousand rupees or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years.”

On the evidence available, it appears that the officials mentioned above fall into this category. In fact, opposition political parties have already flagged this and said that they will be sanctioned, should they form a government.

Secondly, what is even more damning is that the Supreme Court has been a silent spectator, despite petitions submitted to it, in this entire saga. The court did not issue an order compelling the conduct of the election when the opposition submitted petitions expressing their grave concerns as to whether the poll will be held. The court’s stance at the time was that the EC’s undertaking was adequate. It was an exercise in watchful expectation and masterly inactivity.

However, when the EC reneged on its undertaking, the Supreme Court did not take a proactive or assertive approach, opting instead to accept that EC’s explanation passively. That they did so, when the future of democracy in the country is at peril is concerning. This is a far cry from the Supreme Court that pronounced that Maithripala Sirisena’s actions against Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2018 as unconstitutional when the latter was dismissed as Prime Minister and Parliament was dissolved. Just as much as democracy was saved then, democracy is that much more endangered today.

Since these events, Wickremesinghe has been boastful about what transpired. Addressing the Rotary Club a few days later, he was to say that his first priority is the economy, his second priority is the economy and his third priority is the economy. He says that following the country’s economic recovery, it would be in a position to decide on the future it wants next year, with the use of the ballot.

Again, Wickremesinghe is following in his uncle JR’s footsteps. JR once said the country could roll up the electoral map for several years. Like his uncle, nephew Wickremesinghe seems to believe that elections are a gift that he hands out to voters at his whim, not a right enshrined in the Constitution in the form of the peoples’ sovereignty. The difference however is that JR, when he made those comments, had received a massive and still unprecedented mandate from the people. Wickremesinghe is a fortuitous President, not having secured enough votes to even enter Parliament at the last general election.

The events of last week set a dangerous precedent. If allowed to pass uncontested, it would mean that any future government, with the collusion of a few officials could postpone any election citing any reason. That would sound the death knell for democracy as we know it in Sri Lanka.

The public has two options to respond with. It can reignite an ‘aragalaya’ type protest against Wickremesinghe and his lackeys although it is questionable whether the public will have the appetite to launch and sustain a protest campaign so soon after its last effort.

Alternatively, a subsequent government can prosecute and penalise those responsible, officials, politicians and all, just as much as Maithripala Sirisena and his top officials were taken to task for their mishandling of the Easter terror attacks. Sirisena and his officials were found guilty only of negligence whereas Wickremesinghe’s and his acolytes should be charged with wilful obstruction of the democratic process, thereby denying the people their sovereignty.

Swollen with arrogance, Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to have bitten off more than he can chew. He may have achieved a temporary respite from finding out what the real voter sentiment is by postponing the local government polls. At the same time, he had sown the seeds for a massive backlash from voters that he is likely to regret whenever polls are eventually held.


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