By Vishvanath

Ill-conceived words, when uttered in public during an election campaign, have the potential to inflict irreparable damage on a political party and ruin its chances of winning. Hence the need for spokespersons for political parties to exercise control over their tongues when they make public statements lest they should provide grist to their opponents’ mill.  UNP General Secretary Paltiha Range Bandara did not heed this golden rule when he addressed the media the other day. He and his party are on a sticky wicket, as a result. 

Bandara has stirred up a hornets’ nest by calling for a postponement of the presidential and parliamentary elections by two years in view of the current economic crisis. He has said the parliament could resolve to put off the two elections, and public approval for that move should be obtained at a national referendum. The Opposition has got hold of something to bludgeon the UNP with, and it is sure to flog the issue as hard as it can to gain maximum possible political mileage. 

The UNP leadership has gone into damage control mode. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said the presidential election will be conducted on schedule and necessary funds have been allocated for that purpose. Former Minister Ravi Karunanayake, a member of President Wickremesinghe’s kitchen cabinet, has said Bandra has not articulated the UNP’s official position. But there is no stopping the Opposition.

The SLPP has taken exception to Bandara’s proposal. Its National Organizer Namal Rajapaksa lost no time in declaring that his party was against postponing elections. Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has also categorically stated that the government will not stand in the way of the conduct of elections and it is up to the Election Commission to decide when to hold the next presidential poll. 

What Bandara has not realized is that there is no constitutional provision for postponing a presidential election. No President has ever sought to put off a presidential contest. Instead, all two-term Presidents, namely, J. R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, advanced presidential elections to secure re-election and lost about one year each of their first terms in the process. Rajapaksa lost one year each of his first and second terms both as he made an abortive attempt to win a third term by advancing apresidential election. There is no way Parliament can help put off a presidential election without changing the Constitution. 

If the upcoming presidential election is to be postponed, the Constitution will have to be amended and most probably that task will require people’s approval at a nationwide referendum besides a two-thirds majority in the parliament. This is not in the realms of possibility, given the circumstances, and the keenness of the SJB and the JVP-led NPP to contest the next presidential election in a few months. The UNP has only a single parliamentary seat, and the SLPP will not dare back a move to postpone the presidential election and incur more public opprobrium. 

As for Bandara’s controversial proposal, there are two possibilities. He has either come out with it of his own volition without sounding the UNP leadership out on it or sent a trial balloon with the blessings of his political bosses, who havehowever sought to dissociate themselves from his statement as it has proved counterproductive. The general consensus is that Bandara would not have made such a politically sensitive proposal, as the General Secretary of the UNP, unbeknownst to the party leadership.

Interestingly, support for UNP General Secretary Bandara’s call for postponing elections has come from the least expected quarters. Leader of the Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kootan and TNA MP C. V. Vigneswaran has said the time is not conducive toelectoral contests as the economic recovery process should be allowed to go on smoothly, and therefore he is for postponing elections for two years. His position is at variance with that of his fellow TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran, who has stronglycondemned Bandara’s proposal.

The argument that elections could adversely impact the ongoing economic recovery efforts, especially in case of a change of government, is not without some merit. The continuity of the economic recovery strategy, especially the IMF bailout programme, is a perquisite for resolving the crisis. Butthe postponement of elections is bound to have far worse consequences including political upheavals, which will derail the ongoing efforts to stabilize the economy. 

Sri Lanka’s experience with election postponements has been dreadful, to say the least. It was an arbitrary extension of the life of Parliament in 1975 by two years under the SLFP-led United Front government that led to the emergence of a dictatorial regime in 1977; the UNP successfully mobilized the resentful public who were fed up with the SLFP and its economic policies to obtain a five-sixths parliamentary majority, which it abused in every conceivable way to further its own interests. 

The J. R. Jayewardene government went so far as to extend the life of parliament by six years in 1982 without a general election. Instead, it held a referendum, which it won in the most undemocratic manner, to do away with parliamentary polls. The JVP, which challenged the outcome of the referendum in court, was falsely accused of being involved in ethnic violence (1983), and proscribed. It went underground and took up arms again and plunged the country into a bloodbath. The J. R. Jayewardene administration would have felt the need to heed democratic dissent and be flexible if it had faced a general election in 1982; it would not have been able to retain its steamroller majority, which brought about the arrogance of power.

The postponement of the 2020 general election by a few months did not have a disastrous impact on the country because it was the Election Commission that delayed the poll in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was raging at that time. Civil society organizations also called for a poll postponement owing to the rapid spread of the pandemic. But it was a huge mistake for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government to postpone the local government polls, which were due in early 2022. If it had conducted those elections, it would have suffered an electoral setback, but the public would have got an opportunity to give vent to their pent-up anger democratically, forcing the beleaguered government to mend its ways. Perhaps, there would not have been a massive pressure build-up in the polity for protesters to tap if the local government polls had been held in early 2022. 

Thus, no person in his or her proper senses will support the idea of postponing elections, especially the parliamentary and presidential polls. The UNP has scored an own goal; it finds itself in an unenviable situation.