Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for voting unwisely, electing the wrong people to govern them and then protesting. But there is no gainsaying that they cherish their franchise and are ready to go to any extent to safeguard it, as evident from the manner in which many of them voted in defiance of poll boycotts declared by the LTTE in the North and the East, and the JVP in the other parts of the country during its reign of terror in the late 1980s. This is why the Opposition parties, especially the SJB and the JVP, have been able to mobilize the people in large numbers for their campaigns against the postponement of the local government (LG) elections, which were initially scheduled for 09 March. Their protest marches are well attended, and their activists ready to brave brutal police crackdowns. The death of a JVP activist due to water cannon and teargas attacks by the police, on Sunday, came as no surprise.

Lives are usually lost during Sri Lankan elections due to political violence which governments in power unleash to retain their hold on power. People have also been killed for resisting attempts by the LTTE and the JVP to sabotage elections in the past. But instances of people being killed for opposing poll postponements had been unheard of until last Sunday. The government is bent on scuttling the LG elections, and the Opposition is equally determined to have them held and pull out all the stops to achieve that end. More clashes between the police and protesters are likely.

Fallout of Sunday’s incident

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) lost no time in ordering the IGP to submit a report on Sunday’s incident expeditiously. The police officers who ordered the water cannon and tear gas attacks on the protesters and others who carried them out will have to be named, and they are likely to face legal action, which will have a deterrent effect on all police personnel deployed to disperse protests in the future. Nobody wants to be hauled up before court, much less made to pay huge sums from their personal funds, as compensation.

The JVP is no stranger to brutal repression, which it sparked twice during the past four decades or so—first in 1971 and then in the late 1980s. It may not be as Marxist and revolutionary as it makes itself out to be; its long stay in democratic politics has had a mellowing effect on its radical ideology, but the fact remains that it is still an ideologically-driven political entity with highly-motivated cadres ready to make any sacrifices for its cause. This makes it different from other political parties, most of whose supporters are mere patronage seekers, and expect something in return for their support and votes. So, it may be argued that the government has met its match in the JVP, which has vowed to go ahead with its protest campaign, which will help it attract more youth and drum up more popular support. The JVP is sure to make the most of the situation to expand its support base and better its performance at future elections.

The JVP specializes in staging street protests, and only political leaders such as Mahinda Rajapaksa could outdo it. But today Rajapaksa is in the government, which is so unpopular that it is not confident enough to hold outdoor political events; it cannot attract enough participants. The SJB cannot match the JVP’s organizational skills despite its numerical superiority. That it feels threatened by the JVP politically and electorally is evident from its propaganda onslaught on the latter. SJB leader, Sajith Premadasa, never misses an opportunity to lash out at the JVP-led NPP at public meetings. This is an indication that the JVP is eating into the SJB’s support base.  

Deceptive let-up in protests

There was a let-up in protests for a few months following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, which caused pressure in the polity to be released to some extent. The debt default helped the government allocate more foreign exchange for essential imports, and fuel rationing led to an end to hoarding; the government managed to make petroleum products available and long queues near filling stations and gas distribution points disappear. The people also looked forward with anticipation to the local government elections, which the Election Commission (EC) undertook to hold on 09 March; they may have thought of expressing their resentment through the ballot rather than street protests. But the LG polls have been postponed indefinitely.

The Opposition political parties also had to concentrate on poll-related activities; they were busy selecting candidates, making deposits, submitting nominations and conducting their election campaigns, which accounted for a great deal of their time and energy.

Storm in the offing

The political situation has changed due to the postponement of the local government polls. The government has demonstrated that it will go flat out to prevent elections from being held because it is wary of facing the public. The Opposition there has had to change its strategy and hold more street protests to pressure the government to hold elections, and there are bound to be more protests in time to come.

The Opposition’s efforts to enlist the support of the international community to ratchet up pressure on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seems to have reached fruition; the US Senate has asked Colombo to hold the local council elections without further delay. This exhortation could not have come at a better time for the Opposition parties on the warpath. It has boosted their morale significantly, and the government will have to be mindful of international opinion when it tries to suppress protests while it is trying to secure the support of the western world to shore up the economy. The GSP Plus is linked to political rights in developing countries, and unless the government mends its ways, it will run the risk of losing this important trade concession.  

Now that one protester has died due to police action, and international pressure is mounting on the government, the police and the military will have to act with restraint, and this is likely to embolden protesters to intensify their anti-government campaigns. Success begets popular support, as we saw during the Galle Face protests, which grew in strength as the police did not go all out to crush them. The then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to act cautiously owing to foreign pressure, with US Ambassador in Colombo, Julie Chung, evincing a keen interest in protecting the rights of protesters to the point of being seen to be interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

The JVP is reportedly planning more protests in Colombo, and this can be considered its revenge. The SJB and the SLPP dissidents will be compelled to step up their protests in a bid to prevent the JVP from outdoing them. The government will regret having scuttled the local council elections to avert an electoral setback. A perfect storm is brewing, and odds are that the SLPP-UNP administration will buckle under pressure and allow elections to be held.  


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