Friday’s Supreme Court (SC) interim order has boosted the morale of the Opposition and demoralized the government beyond measure. The SLPP and UNP politicians were quite upbeat following President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent parliamentary speech, wherein he made it abundantly clear that he would not allow the local government (LG) polls to be held as the country could not afford an electoral contest at this juncture. He sought to make light of the Opposition’s protests against the postponement of the elections by claiming that the Election Commission (EC) had not announced the LG polls properly and therefore the need for putting them off had not arisen.

President Wickremesinghe may have expected the Opposition’s protests to fizzle out. But the SC interim order hit the government between the eyes, and sent it reeling.

Harsh political reality

Politics is full of ups and downs and tricks and traps like Snakes and Ladders. The popularity of any government declineswith the passage of time. This phenomenon is known as the anti-incumbency factor. Political parties and their leaders should come to terms with this reality and act accordingly if they are to avoid trouble. Easier said than done, though.

Power is highly addictive like heroin, and politicians cannot let go of it after savoring it for some time. But it is always counterproductive to postpone elections for fear of losing them. Polls should not be unnecessarily advanced either. They should be held on schedule and their predictability goes a long way towards fostering public trust in the electoral process, and ensuring a country’s political stability, democratic wellbeing and progress. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, and must be treated as such.    

Thus, it was a colossal blunder for the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration to postpone the local government elections, which were first put off by one year in 2022.

President Wickremsinghe, being an experienced leader, who is no stranger to electoral setbacks, should have learnt from the political fallout of the postponement by the UNP-led Yahapalana government of the Provincial Council elections in 2017. Public anger continued to well up and found expression in a massive anti-government swing the following year, when the UNP and its Yahapalana partner, the SLFP, suffered humiliating defeats at the 2018 local government polls, whose outcome paved the way for the meteoric rise of the SLPP, which went on to bag the presidency and wrest control of the parliament, where it mustered a two-thirds majority. In 1975, the then SLFP-led United Front government put off a general election by two years, and was routed at the 1977 general election. The late President J. R. Jayewardene replaced a general election with a heavily-rigged referendum, and unwittingly created conditions for the second JVP uprising, which plunged the country into a bloodbath.

Rare moment of unity

The SJB and the JVP/NPP have been fighting fierce propaganda battles in public during the past few weeks in a bid to outshine each other much to the glee of the SLPP-UNP government. Their propaganda onslaughts against each other were in vain as the government had the LG polls postponed; their slanging matches have left a bad taste in the mouth of everyone who expects the Opposition to act unitedly and responsibly to countervail the government without fighting among themselves to score petty political points at the expense of the interests of the public.

In a rare moment of unity, the Opposition political parties have sunk their differences and got together to write a joint letter to the Election Commission (EC), urging it to hold the much-delayed local government (LG) elections on or before 19 March because the extended terms of the local councils expire on 20 March.

The signatories to the letter are Vijitha Herath (JVP/NPP), Prof. G. L. Peiris (representing SLPP breakaway groups), Mano Ganeshan (TPA), Rishard Bathudeen (ALMC), Ranjith Badduma Bandara (SJB), Shankiyan Rasamanickam (TNA), M. A. Sumanthiran (TNA) and Dayasiri Jayasekea (SLFP).

Referring to Friday’s SC interim order restraining the Minister of Finance, the Secretary to the Treasury and other officials from withhold budgetary allocations for the conduct of the LG elections, the Opposition parties have asked the EC to resume the process of holding the LG polls expeditiously in keeping with its undertaking to the SC that it will conduct the polls according to law. They have argued that there is no need for the EC to have any discussions with the Secretary to the Treasury in the light of the SC interim order. They seem to fear that a discussion between the EC and the Finance Ministry, which is under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, will help the government devise a plan to circumvent the SC order. UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has already claimed that no funds have been allocated by the 2023 Budget for elections, and only an estimate has been presented. The State Minister of Finance, Ranjith Siyambalapitya, however, has said the government will comply with the SC order, but stopped short of saying that it will make necessary funds available to the ECfor the elections.

Dire warning to public officials

The Opposition parties have issued a dire warning to all public officials that they will be charged with contempt of court unless they abide by the SC interim order and facilitate the conduct of the LG elections. Their warning is particularly for the consumption of Secretary to the Finance Ministry Mahinda Siriwardena and Government Printer Gangani Liyanage, who, in keeping with a controversial presidential directive, halted the printing of ballot papers, demanding that the EC pay for ballot papers and other election-related printed materials upfront because the President had asked her department to adopt the zero-based budgeting method. Will these officials now make about-turns and do as the EC says?

Government politicians and their legal advisors must be working overtime in a bid to overcome the judicial hurdle in their path. The safest course of action for them is to bite the bullet and let the EC hold the LG elections without inviting trouble. It is only wishful thinking that they will be able to avoidan electoral setback by postponing elections.

Fragile unity

How long will the Opposition parties remain united? If a new date is announced for the LG polls, they are likely to take on one another again. Old habits are said to die hard. Their unity will be the first casualty when their election campaigns get underway in earnest, again. Chances are that their fights will resume and get down and dirty if the propaganda battles that the JVP and the SJB have been fighting are any indication. But the fact remains that the government has, in its wisdom, provided the Opposition with a rallying point. It has blundered by meddling with the electoral process, and in doing so, it has not only done something undemocratic and condemnable but also betrayed its fear of elections.  



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here