There is widespread speculation that the much-delayed Provincial Council (PC) polls may be held sooner than expected although the government does not seem to be making anypreparations for an electoral contest. State Minister of Batik, Handloom and Local Apparel Products, Dayasiri Jayasekera(SLFP), has already thrown his hat into the ring. He announced his intention to contest the PC polls. He did so in answer to a question raised by a journalist in Kurunegala on Tuesday (28). He said he would resign from the parliament and contest as the chief ministerial candidate if an alliance led by the SLFP enteredthe fray. He is a former Chief Minister of the North Western Province (NWP).

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has drawn a lot of flak from his opponents for asking the government to resign and hold a snap general election. Government politicians have torn into him for demanding an election at the height of a pandemic with no concern for the people’s suffering. JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, too, flayed Premadasa in the parliament recently for the latter’s call in question. But less than ten days later, on 22 Sept., Leader of the House and Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, speaking in his capacity as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reforms, called for the acceleration of the process of conducting the much-delayed PC elections. He said the PSC had asked the Attorney General to seek its recommendations on actions to be taken to hold the PC polls as early as possible.

Curiously, nobody criticized Minister Gunawardena or the PSC for trying to have elections held amidst a national health emergency. Gunawardena’s statement may have fuelled speculation that the government is planning to hold the PC polls.

What’s up Jayasekera’s sleeve?

Why has State Minister Jayasekera shown his hand too early even before the announcement of the PC polls? There seem to be several reasons. A former Cabinet Minister,Jayasekera is not happy with the ministerial post he hasreceived. He particularly does not like the subjects assigned to him. He is popularly called the Batik Minister, which he does not consider complimentary. He once publicly lamented that his state ministry had become the laughing stock, and Basil Rajapaksa was responsible for creating it. So, it is only natural that he would rather strive to be a Chief Minister, who is equal in rank to a member of the Cabinet than continue to be the Batik Minister. The SLFP is trying to up the ante by pretending to be ready to go it alone at the next election.

However, something that Jayasekera will have to factor in if the SLFP decides to contest the PC polls alone in the NWP is that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa himself will lead the SLPP’s election campaign in that province.

A worrisome proposition for governments

Midterm elections are a worrisome proposition for any government. In this country, parliamentary polls usually come after presidential elections during the so-called honeymoon period, and it is not difficult to predict the winner; the President’s party captures power in Parliament. Parliamentary polls preceded a presidential contest only in 1994 because President D. B. Wijetunge chose to retire after serving his full presidential term, but the coalition—the SLFP-led People’s Alliance—won both elections.

Even President J. R. Jayewardene, who formed a government with a five-sixths majority in Parliament in 1977 and elevated himself to the Executive President by changing the Constitution, was apprehensive about a midterm general election, even after securing a second term in 1982 by depriving Sirima Bandaranaike of her civic rights and thereby disqualifying her from contesting. He also wanted to retain his steamroller majority. Hence his decision to hold a referendum to ask the people whether they wanted a general election.

The UNP heavily rigged the referendum and obtained the outcome it desired. President Jayewardene’s fear was not totally unfounded. Having held 18 byelections, in 1983, in the electorates where the UNP had lost the referendum, the UNP could win only 14 of them despite abusing state resources, unleashing savage violence against the Opposition and stuffing ballot boxes. The winners in the four electorates secured by the Opposition were Richard Pathirana (Akmeemana), Amarasiri Dodangoda (Baddegama), Anil Moonesinghe (Matugama) and Dinesh Gunawardena (Maharagama). But for heavy rigging and election violence, the Opposition would have fared much better.

PC polls leading to regime changes

The PC polls or even the Local Government (LG) elections can assume the importance of a general election when they happen to be held a few years after parliamentary polls while agovernment’s approval ratings are dropping. They serve as political windsocks. This is why politicians in power leave no stones unturned in their efforts to win these contests. What sealed the fate of the UNP’s 17-year rule was an isolated PC election, which the UNP caused to happen unnecessarily in the Southern Province in 1994 and provided the Opposition with a rallying point ahead of a general election.

The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 debilitated the UNP, which, however, remained fighting fit, and revived under Gamin Dissanayake’s leadership. Dissanayake returned to the UNP’s fold, after the assassinations of Lalith Athulathmudali and President Premadasa. He left the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), which he and LalithAthulathmudali had formed after being sacked by President Premadasa for their abortive attempt to impeach him.

The SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) won the election to the Southern PC in 1993, but could secure only a razor thin majority. A group of UNPers led by the late Anura Bandaranaike, in a bid to deliver an electoral shock to the PA before the parliamentary polls, tried to capture power in the Southern PC. They won over a PA councillor and got him to go into hiding so that the PA would lose its majority in the council. Their plan worked, but the PC was dissolved and an election declared.

The PA under the then Western Province Chief Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga conducted an extremely successful election campaign and bagged the council with a comfortable majority in March 1994. The UNP’s electoral weakness was exposed, and there was no stopping the PA from that point. The PA went on to win the general election that cameabout four months later, and the presidential election in quick succession.

End of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government

It was also a PC election that led to the fall of the mightyMahinda Rajapaksa government, which had mustered a two-thirds majority in the parliament, and was thought to be invincible at the time. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) under President Rajapaksa’s stewardship had been on a winning streak for nearly ten years when the Uva PC election was held in Sept. 2014.

UNP MP Harin Fernando resigned from Parliament and contested the Uva PC polls as the UNP’s Chief Ministerial candidate. The UPFA fielded President Rajapaksa’s nephew Shasheendra Rajapaksa as its Chief Ministerial candidate. The then government did everything in its power to win the election, which it could not afford to lose for obvious reasons, and it secured the council, but with a reduced majority.

At the 2009 election, the UPFA won the council with a huge majority of 16 seats. It obtained 25 seats as opposed to the UNP’s 07 and the JVP’s one. (The Upcountry People’s Front also secured one seat.) But five years later, it could win only 19 seats while the UNP and the JVP secured 13 seats and 02 seats respectively. The UPFA obtained 72% of the valid votes in 2009, but this percentage dropped to 51.24 in 2014 whereas the UNP’s share of votes increased from 22.34% in 2009 to 40.24% in 2014. The JVP, which polled only 2.53% of the valid votes in 2009 secured 5.35% in 2014.


Overall, the UPFA’s performance was very poor although the entire Rajapaksa family had campaigned extremely hard for Shasheendra and the entire state machinery had been mobilized in support of him. This emboldened the Opposition as it became obvious that the popularity of the Rajapaksa government was on the wane, and this fact must have influenced the then SLFP General Secretary and Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to leave the UPFA government and challenge President Rajapaksa in the presidential race. He decamped two months after the Uva PC polls and went on to become the President, dislodge the UPFA government and form a ‘national government’ together with the UNP.

LG polls tearing a government asunder

The National Unity government formed by the UNP-led UNF and the SLFP-led UPFA in 2015 did not fear anything more than the prospect of facing an election. It kept postponing the LG and PC polls because it did not want the UNP and the SLFP to vie with each other in an electoral contest at the expense of the unity of the yahapalana government. But it had to hold the LG polls in April 2018, and did not know what hit it. The SLPP scored a stunning win.

The outcome of the 2018 LG polls strained the relations between the UNP and the SLFP, and six months later President Sirisena struck a political deal with the Rajapaksa family, sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa to that post. But a judicial decision in favour of the UNP brought down the hurriedly formed Sirisena-Rajapaksa government, which failed to muster a working majority in the parliament. The UNP continued to be in power, but its fate had already been sealed. The following year,Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency and the SLPP secured power in the parliament in 2020.

The honeymoon period is over for the incumbent government, whose popularity is on the wane. It is facing numerous problems on all fronts besides the pandemic, which has crippled the economy and greatly diminished the SLPP’s capacity to deliver. Many of its election pledges remain unfulfilled. So, if the PC polls are held, as expected, they will serve as a referendum on the government’s performance besides being a windsock indicating which way the pollical wind is blowing.



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