The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has changed its strategy in trying to postpone the Local Government (LG) polls indefinitely. Earlier, it placed itself on a collision course with the Election Commission (EC) by depriving the latter of funds needed for elections. But following the recent Supreme Court interim order preventing public officials from withholding funds allocated from the 2023 budget for elections, it has adopted a different modus operandi.

All governments are apprehensive of facing midterm elections however popular they may be because the so-called anti-incumbency fact sets in. Hence, they tend to manipulate the electoral process as we have seen since 1975, when a government postponed a general election for the first time. The SLFP-led United Front government put off the parliamentary polls by two years and suffered a humiliating defeat in 1977. The J. R. Jayewardene government held a referendum in lieu of the general election, which was due in 1982. All Presidents, save D. B. Wijetunga and Maithripala Sirisena, advanced presidential elections to one-up other contenders. President Mahinda Rajapaksa also did so successfully in 2010, but faced an ignominious defeat in 2015 after advancing a presidential election with a view to securing a third term. The Provincial and Local Government (LG) elections have been staggered and/or postponed on numerous occasions.

The Provincial Councils are still without elected representatives owing to the postponement by the UNP-led Yahapalana government of the elections to them in 2017. They are now under the provincial Governors, who are the representatives of the President. The Local Government institutions will be run by some officials handpicked by the provincial Governors after March 19, when their extended terms expire. The President will have control over them at least for one month, and unless the LG elections are held on April 25, 2023, the local councils will be under the Executive indefinitely.

The government is all out to scuttle the LG polls scheduled for April 25. President Ranil Wickremesinghe made no bones about his intention to prevent the EC from conducting the LG polls. He told the parliament recently that the EC had not declared the LG elections properly and therefore funds must not be allocated for them; legal action could be taken against the public officials if they followed the EC directives, he said. Little did he realize that the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, which is under him, had already allocated a large sum of money for the EC, and the Government Printer had printed a part of the ballot papers and election-related documents!

Govt.’s new strategy

The above-mentioned SC interim order is not something the government bargained for, and it has upended its plans to postpone the LG polls. Instead of resorting to offensive action such as refusing to allocate funds for the EC, the government has chosen to play victim. It now claims that the SC interim order has led to a breach of parliamentary privileges.

Raising an issue of privilege, MP Premanath C. Dolawatte, told the parliament on Tuesday (07) that the Finance Minister was responsible to the legislature, which controlled public finance, and, therefore, the SC order was violative of the parliamentary powers and privileges. He went on to claim that the SC order sought to give effect to the activity Budget estimates for 2023, which lacked legal validity as such; they were only a summary of the Appropriation Bill for 2023 to guild the Parliament during the Budget debate.

State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe told the parliament on Friday (10) that the privilege issue raised by MP Dolawatte had been referred by the Speaker to the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics and Privileges. “It is a serious offence to implement the interim order by the Supreme Court before the Committee looks into the said matter and take a decision,” he said. Thus, the government is determined to prevent the implementation of the SC order and thereby delay the LG polls.

The Opposition let out a howl of protest, on Friday, condemning the government for trying to take cover behind parliamentary privileges to postpone the LG polls. It is likely to move the SC against those who refuse to abide by the interim order in question.

The SJB and the JVP have vowed to hold mass protests to defend the people’s franchise.

Fallout of govt. action

Hardly a day passes without an anti-government protest in either Colombo or some other part of the country and police action to disperse it. Protesters are demanding that the LG polls be held without further delay. Wednesday saw two such agitations, one in Colombo and the other in Kelaniya. The police armed with assault rifles swooped on the agitators, and another group of persons carrying iron rods and wearing what looked like army uniform operated alongside the police. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told Parliament on Friday (10) that the Military Spokesman had denied the deployment of troops to disperse protesters and therefore the unidentified armed persons may have been the personnel of a security firm under a cloud with links to the government.

The protesting student unions have petitioned the UN office in Colombo to intervene to prevent the SLPP-UNP government from suppressing human rights and the people’s franchise. They and the Opposition are trying to internationalize the issue as part of their strategy to tame the government.

The government seems to think that it can keep its political rivals at bay with the help of the police, the military and its supporters, and delay the LG elections, which have been rescheduled for April 25.

Conjoined twins

A country’s economic development and political stability are like conjoined twins with a shared heart. There is no way one could survive without the other. Sri Lanka finds itself in a situation where there is neither economic development nor political stability. Worse still, it has had to come out of the current economic crisis by meeting the IMF aid conditions, which really hurt the public, and, at the same time, it has to maintain political stability to support the economic recovery process. This is a textbook example of a Catch-22 situation. This is a task that requires an enormous amount of patience and action to win public confidence.

The incumbent government is responsible for having bankrupted the country or precipitated its bankruptcy by making a series of blunders on the economic front such as the politically-motivated tax cuts, failure to seek IMF help in time, disastrous fertilizer experiment, excessive money printing, which caused high inflation, and rapid devaluation of the rupee against the US dollar and other major foreign currencies and the mismanagement of foreign currency reserves. It betrayed the trust people reposed in it at three successive elections—the 2018 local government polls, the 2019 presidential election, and the 2020 parliamentary polls. Corruption, waste, cronyism and a near breakdown of the rule of law have led to a severe erosion of public faith in the government. Therefore, the government has its work cut out to win back the public, without whose support it cannot bring about political stability; sadly, it does not seem to care to do so. It stands accused of displaying what its critics call a cavalier attitude towards the public troubled by unbearable economic woes.

Need for conciliatory approach

The government’s popularity has plummeted so much so that it does not want to face an electoral contest for fear of its electoral weakness being exposed. But there is no way it can go on postponing elections indefinitely without plunging the country into chaos. Elections are safety valves that help release public anger, which can otherwise be used by political outfits with anarchical agendas to further their interests. Attacks on protesters are counterproductive. A protester has already died due to a police attack, and another one is said to be receiving ICU treatment. The Opposition has also blamed the police for the death of a non-academic worker at the University of Colombo during a students’ protests, which the police used force to disperse.

The only way the government can avert disaster is to adopt a conciliatory approach and make a serious effort to defuse tensions in the polity by allowing the LG polls to be held. It may not be able to avoid a crushing defeat, but it will not fall. If it learns from its mistakes, and revives the economy with the help of the IMF, the World Bank and donor nations, and ameliorates the suffering of the public to a considerable extent, it may be able to recover lost ground in time for the next major election—parliamentary or presidential. Its attempts to suppress democratic dissent and postpone elections will only lead to chaos and ruin its chances of reviving the economy and regaining popular support.











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