Electoral Changes at This Juncture: Stabbing with A Golden Knife

M S M Ayub | 16 October 2022
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The claims and doubts of the current Opposition parties that the SLPP led government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe was planning to delay the elections for the local councils that are scheduled to be held early next year are not unfounded. In fact, there are sufficient grounds to believe that government fears elections, what so ever, in light of the hardships faced by the people due to the current economic meltdown

President Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 9 made several suggestions to the country’s electoral system during a meeting with a group of professionals at the Presidential Secretariat.   

He stated that the number of members in local government bodies should be brought down from the current 8700 to 4000, a referendum should be held to decide the Parliamentary electoral system unless the Parliamentary select committee which is to be appointed soon fails to do so by July next year, the preferential voting system should be done away with and limitations have to be imposed on the election expenses by political parties and candidates.   

It is not clear if these are the suggestions of the United National Party (UNP), the President’s party or the ruling Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna (SLPP) on which he is depending for his political survival. Also how he plans to downsize the local authorities by half is also not clear, despite the whole country, except for a small group of local politician endorsing his suggestion.   

The number of members in local government bodies was around 4000 before the mixed electoral system was introduced for the local government elections in 2012. When members are elected for each ward in local council areas and in proportionate to the votes each party has obtained, under the mixed system, increase in the overall number of members cannot be avoided. It further went up when the ratio between the members elected under first-past-the-post system and PR system was changed to 30:70 from 40:60 by the yahapalana government.   

A group of members of the Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa, the group that defected from the SLPP immediately prior to the Parliamentary vote for the election of the President in July met the members of the National Election Commission (NEC) on Wednesday to discuss the president’s suggestion, especially those on the local government bodies. The group led by Dullas Alahapperuma, the former minister and onetime staunch supporter of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told the commission that the purpose of the President’s move was to postpone the local government elections.   

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also holds the same view. One of the three parliamentarians of the JVP/ National People’s Power (NPP) Vijitha Herath while talking to media on Wednesday likened President’s suggestion to the way the Yahapalana government stalled the provincial council election in 2017, an issue that has not been sorted out to-date. Herath said “they are going to play the delimitation game again in this matter as well.” He was referring to inability in holding provincial council elections for the past five years due to the delay in delimitation of wards in areas come under each provincial council.   

The previous government led by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presented two amendment Bills in September, 2017, one to the Constitution and the other to the Provincial Councils Elections Act. The Bill for the Constitutional amendment which had then been given the serial number 20 (20th Amendment to the Constitution) was meant for the holding of elections for the provincial councils on the same day, instead of holding them on a staggered basis. Nobody objected to the professed intention, but doubted of ulterior motives.   

However, the Supreme Court rejected some of the Articles of the Bill on the ground that elections for the provincial councils would be delayed, among others and ruled that the Bill must be approved by the people at a referendum, apart from adopting it with a special majority in Parliament. The government, instead of removing the contentious Articles dumped the Bill in toto.   

Then the Bill for the amendment of the Provincial Councils Elections Act came to the fore. The Bill too was uncontroversial among the political parties, as it was to provide for the inclusion of thirty percent of female candidates in the nominations papers of political parties contesting provincial council elections. However, government for reasons unknown to the country included some other incontrovertible provisions in the Bill, as an amendment (an amendment to an amendment) during the committee stage of the Parliamentary debate on it. Interestingly, the amendment so crept in had nothing to do with the original Bill.   

That committee stage amendment provided for the conducting of elections for the provincial councils under the mixed electoral system of first-past-the-post system and the Proportional Representation (PR) system. This was an issue that could not be rejected by any political party as almost all parties had already agreed to introduce the mixed electoral system to the provincial councils and Parliamentary elections as well. The mixed system had already been introduced to the local government elections.   

Yet, the modality the government followed in introducing that committee stage amendment was highly questionable. The implementation of mixed electoral system would unavoidably necessitate demarcation of wards in areas under each of the nine provincial councils. This delimitation process might take a long time. The delimitation for the local councils took four years (2012-2016). And the terms of three provincial councils were to end in the same month when the mixed electoral system was introduced for provincial council elections. Hence, the then Opposition parties including the current ruling SLPP accused that the government was attempting to postpone the PC elections.   

In fact the allegation had a solid foundation. When the Supreme Court ruled that some provisions in the 20th Amendment Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution on the grounds that PC elections would be postponed, another Bill was adopted with an amendment that would definitely postpone the same elections. And interestingly, the amendment was introduced during the committee stage debate after which nobody would be able to challenge it in the court. This was a trick by the then UNP led government to postpone the PC elections circumventing the Supreme Court probe.   

Therefore, the claims and doubts of the current Opposition parties that the SLPP led government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe was planning to delay the elections for the local councils that are scheduled to be held early next year are not unfounded. In fact, there are sufficient grounds to believe that government fears elections, what so ever, in light of the hardships faced by the people due to the current economic meltdown.   

Signs of the governments unpopularity are considerably ample. Prices of essential items and tariffs of water, electricity and telecommunication services are going through the roof and unbearable even to the middle class. Lifestyles of the people, except for those who are super-rich and the education of children are badly hit. Dreams, hopes, ambition and esteem of millions of people are shattered. Aragalaya at the Galle Face Green seems to have gone, but the aragalaya in each home and kitchen is mounting day in and day out. And unlike in the past, the majority of people in the country have understood where things have gone wrong.   

This is a situation that is extremely difficult for the ruling SLPP to overcome even by rousing the highest ever patriotic emotions. So, the President is showing a good intension – downsizing the LG bodies - possibly with some ulterior motive, as his government did in 2017. This amounts to stabbing with a golden knife.   

The irony is that the government that argues against holding elections citing empty public coffers is prepared to hold nationwide referendums. This reminds us the Sri Lanka’s first and only referendum held in 1982 to postpone a general election by the then UNP government where Ranil Wickremesinghe was a minister.     

M S M Ayub is the Writer

This article was originally published on Daily Mirror.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.