The government is pulling out all the stops to postpone the local government (GL) elections indefinitely. It has even challenged a Supreme Court (SC) interim order and resorted to something unprecedented in this country. The parliament has decided to summon three SC judges for having issued the above-mentioned interim order that public officials, especially the Treasury Secretary, refrain from blocking the release of budgetary allocations for the Election Commission (EC).

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has, in his capacity as the Minister of Finance, directed all state employees to adopt zero-based budgeting and stop procuring or providing anything on credit. He has thus effectively prevented the EC from having ballot papers and other election-related material printed. The Government Printer has refused to produce them unless upfront payments are made. The Treasury has been instructed to release funds only for essential goods and services. The SC interim order would have compelled the Secretary to the Finance Ministry to release funds for the EC, but the government has contrived a method to prevent it from taking effect.

The parliamentary Committee on Ethics and Privileges (COEP) is scheduled to question the SC judges concerned soon amidst protests from all those who cherish judicial independence. The Opposition has also taken exception to the government move.

The government has said in no uncertain terms that no action based on the SC interim order will be taken until the conclusion of the COEP inquiry, which is very likely to drag on for months on end. This shows the extent to which the government is ready to go in its efforts to avoid a crushing electoral setback, which will expose not only its unpopularity but also the fact that it is without any legitimacy.

Next election

When will the next election—LG, Provincial Council (PC) or parliamentary or presidential—be held? This is the question that everybody is asking these days. It is now certain that the government will go the whole hog to prevent the conduct of the LG polls. There are no signs of the long-delayed PC polls being held any time soon either; electoral reforms pertaining to the PC system are still on the anvil.

President Wickremesinghe can now dissolve the parliament anytime, according to the Constitution, because two and a half years have elapsed since its election in 2020. But such a move will be tantamount to a blind plunge, for the SLPP, which is backing him in the parliament, is bound to lose power, at a general election. The next parliament is very likely to be hung but the chances of the SLPP and the UNP forming a government even with the help of some crossovers are extremely remote.

The Executive President is powerful only when he or she commands a parliamentary majority, and otherwise, the Prime Minister becomes the de facto head of state. This, we saw from 2001 to 2004 during the presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (representing SLFP-led People’s Alliance), who had the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (from the UNP) undermining her position. She was so incensed that she sacked that government in 2004 and her party captured power in the parliament. A similar situation prevailed from 2015 to late 2019 with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe clashing with President Maithripala Sirisena, who was dependent on the UNP for legislative support. Sirisena also sought to sack PM Wickremesinghe but a Supreme Court ruling put paid to his move. President Wickremesinghe knows that the same fate will befall him in the event of the SLPP-UNP alliance losing control of the parliament. He will have to maintain a low profile as the late President D. B. Wijetunga did for a few months following the SLFP-led PA’s victory at the 1994 general election if he is to co-exist with a government formed by a party other than the SLPP and the UNP. Wijetunga was planning to retire and, therefore, did not mind playing second fiddle to Prime Minister Kumaratunga, who went on to become the President a few months later. Wijetunga and Kumaratunga go on well. But Wickremesinghe is obviously desirous of contesting the next presidential election and does not want to do a Wijetunga. He has undertaken to rebuild the UNP and prepare it for the next parliamentary election. This task requires time because the UNP, which was left with only a single National List slot at the last general election, will not be able to improve its electoral performance anytime soon. Therefore, a snap parliamentary election is a gamble President Wickremesinghe is not likely to take.

Early presidential polls?

The government would have the public believe that President Wickremesinghe will advance the next presidential election. But can he do so? The answer is in the negative. The Constitution allows a popularly elected President to go for a snap presidential election after completing four years of his or her first term. Article 31 (3A) (a) (i) says, “… the President may, at any time after the expiration four years from the commencement of his first term of office, by proclamation, declare his intention of appealing to the people for a mandate to hold office by election for a second term.”  Thus, it is clear that the President, elected by the people, can opt for an early presidential election provided four years of his or her first term has expired. But a person who succeeds the President due to the latter’s resignation, impeachment or death, is denied this right. Article 31(e) says, “A person succeeding to the office of President under Article 40 shall not be entitled to exercise the right conferred on a President by sub-paragraph (1) of this paragraph.

Article 40 says, among other things: “If the office of President shall become vacant prior to the expiration of his term of office, Parliament shall elect as President one of its Members who is qualified to be elected to the office of President. Any person so succeeding to the office of President shall hold office only for the unexpired period of the term of office of the President vacating office.” It is under this Article that Wickremesinghe was elected President, and therefore Article 31(e) applies to him. This is an unprecedented situation in this country.

Thus, as could be seen from the foregoing constitutional provisions, there is no way President Wickremesinghe could hold an early presidential election, whatever his supporters may say. The government MPs have not read the Constitution properly or are pulling the wool over the eyes of the public in a bid to justify the undemocratic methods they have adopted to delay the LG polls.

If we are to go by the government’s pledge that there will be a presidential election and, therefore, the public need not worry about the LG polls, which cannot make or break governments, then  there will be no election until the presidential polls due next year, for President Wickremesinghe is constitutionally required to complete the full ‘unexpired period of the term’ of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who vacated office last year. If President Wickremesinghe ceases to hold office by any chance, his successor, too, will not be able to hold a snap presidential election. This is what the Opposition should enlighten the public on.    


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