Sovereignty, which is said to reside in the people, consists in powers of government, fundamental rights and franchise. The infringement of any of these rights amounts to an attack on people’s sovereignty and democracy besides being a blatant violation of the Constitution, where they are enshrined in entrenched clauses. But in the developing world, such impingements are usually taken for granted owing to the deification of political authority, which has scant regard for the people’s rights and freedoms, as has been the experience of Sri Lankans, who have earned notoriety for meekly submitting themselves to the dictates of those in power.

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration is ready to do whatever it takes to delay the local council elections scheduled for 09 March 2023 because there is no other way it can avert a disastrous electoral defeat, which will mark the beginning of its end. Its predicament is similar to that of the UNP-led Yahapalana government (2015-2019), which managed to muster a working majority in the parliament and thereby retain power although its approval ratings were plummeting.

In 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe contrived to postpone the Provincial Council elections by amending the Provincial Council Elections Act but had to hold the local government elections the following year and suffered a humiliating defeat each. The duo fell out thereafter and the SLFP pulled out of the Yahapalana government. Today, the UNP and the SLPP are sharing power, and an electoral defeat will deal a severe blow to their unity, and threaten the stability of their join administration.

Controversial circular

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has directed all public officials to utilize state funds only for essential expenses specified by him, such as those involving healthcare, education, government servants’ salaries and pensions, and refrain from carrying forward balances and ensure that there are no pre-committed expenses. This order issued in the form of a circular has effectively prevented the Government Printer from printing the ballot papers, and the postal voting has had to be postponed until further notice, and the March 09 elections are also in the balance. The Opposition has taken exception to the above-mentioned circular, and insists that the presidential directives cannot undermine the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of the public.

The Government Printer has asked the Election Commission (EC) for funds for ballot paper printing, and Secretary to the Finance Ministry Mahinda Siriwardena has informed the EC that he is not in a position to allocate funds for elections on account of the presidential directive. The EC is in a dilemma, and poll observers and other pro-democracy activists have let out a howl of protest against the government’s bid to delay the local council polls. The matter is very likely to end up in courts.

The JVP has pointed out Rs. 10 billion was allocated for the EC from the 2023 Budget, and the President has no powers to prevent the Finance Ministry from releasing it for elections.

SLPP and UNP in dilemma

A cursory glance at the past election results reveals why the UNP-SLPP government is wary of facing the scheduled local council polls.

The SLPP, whose popularity is extremely low, is bound to lose many votes, seats and councils, and it is highly doubtful whether the UNP, which has joined hands with the SLPP, will be able to improve its performance significantly.

There are 340 local councils with 8,708 members in them. At the 2018 LG elections, the SLPP won 126 councils with 3,436 seats. It polled a staggering 5,006,837 votes (40.47%). Subsequently, it obtained 6,853,693 votes (59%) at the 2020 general election and won 145 seats. But the current economic crisis, the so-called anti-incumbency factor, corruption, abuse of power, etc., have caused a severe erosion of the SLPP’s vote base.

At the 2018 LG polls, the UNP polled 3,640,620 votes (29.42%) and secured 2,433 seats and 05 councils. However, at the 2020 general election, it polled only 249,000 votes (2.15%) and was left with only a single National List slot. Its leader and current President Wickremesinghe lost his seat in Colombo. The UNP will have to match its performance in 2018 before eyeing more seats and councils at the next LG polls. This is an uphill task.

JVP’s overconfidence

The JVP is at the forefront of the ongoing campaign against the government’s relentless efforts to postpone the local council polls. It thinks the people are fed up with the UNP, the SLFP and their offshoots, and therefore will vote for it overwhelmingly, enabling it to sweep to victory at the next election. It may be trying to pull off a surprise, the way it did in 2004, when it outperformed all other parties at that year’s parliament election, where it won 41 seats and allowed the SLFP to get two of its National List slots. But its success was mostly due to the fact that it contested as a constituent of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). It left the UPFA government, and has not been able to secure more than seven seats at any of the general elections since then.

The JVP failed to secure a single local council at the 2018 local government elections. It won one ward and obtained 433 seats under the Proportional Representation system; it polled 710,932 votes (5.75%). But the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP) could obtain only 446,000 votes (3.84%) at the 2020 general election and secure three seats. The challenge before the JVP is to increase its vote bank to the 2018 level before trying to beat other parties in the race.

SJB’s chances

The 2023 LG elections have apparently become a contest between the SJB and the JVP-led NPP. The two parties have stopped attacking the UNP and the SLPP and are taking on each other instead. Their fight is getting down and dirty with their leaders taking swipes at one another in public.

The SJB was founded on February 10, 2020. Its politicians were in the UNP when the last local government elections were held in 2018. At the 2020 general election, the SJB polled 2,771,984 votes (23.9%) and obtained 54 seats and became the second largest party in the parliament. Hence it is confident that it will be able to expand its vote bank and overtake the SLPP and the UNP come the next election.

Not-so-hidden danger

Both the SJB and the JVP have threatened to take to the streets if the government postpones the LG polls on some pretext or another. They may not come together to pressure the government, but they will be able to mobilize enough people, and there is the likelihood of a situation similar to that we witnessed last year coming about again.

The government will do everything possible to crush public protests in a bid to retain its hold on power, and there might be bloodshed, which will make it even more difficult for the SLPP-UNP administration to govern the country, and political instability is likely to set in again, taking its toll on economic recovery. This is why it is advisable for the government to stop playing duck and drakes with the people’s franchise, and pluck up the courage to face the LG polls, which will allow the public to express their resentment and help make them simmer down.





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