By Jehan Perera –
After much procrastination the Election Commission has finally decided that local government elections will be held on March 9. The elections to these bodies had already been postponed by a year as permitted by law. Postponing elections beyond a year would take the country into the murky realms of extralegal governance which would pose a threat to democracy by eroding the rule of law. The country is being propelled in the direction of elections.
It is not the desire of the government that is ensuring that elections take place but the desire of the opposition political parties and their candidates who are optimistic about their prospects, and civil society election monitoring groups who stand for the principle of regular elections. The politicians see the opportunity to capture elected office. Civil society organisations that work for democracy see the need to ensure that democratic mechanisms continue to operate in the midst of an unprecedented economic and political crisis.
Despite the election commission’s decision to conduct the local government elections on March 9, there remain doubts that the local government elections will actually take place at this time. Spokespersons for the government are claiming that there is no money in the treasury to hold elections. The government has made this case before the Supreme Court. Other government spokespersons, including the president, have been arguing that the country needs political stability for economic development until the economy takes off. Another curious argument made was that the Election Commission decision on the date of the election was questionable as only two of the five members were physically present at the time of the decision. The Election Commission had to respond that the other three participated virtually on Zoom.
The multiple efforts being made to postpone the local government elections may or may not come to fruition. But the consequences will be fraught in either event. If the elections are somehow postponed even after the date has been fixed by the Election Commission, this will be resisted by the opposition parties. They will go to courts to seek redress. Civil society election monitoring watchdog organisations will join in this. The question posed to the court will be whether to heed the political and economic imperatives of the government or to abide by the straightforward application of the law. In recent cases, most notably the Easter bombing case, the Supreme Court has shown a willingness to bring about the much demanded “system change” by legal and legitimate methods.
There will also be immense pressure on the political parties to take the campaign for elections to the streets. The opposition parties will feel emboldened to do so because they will make an assessment that the government is fearing electoral defeat as it does not enjoy popular support. Very few are today willing to see the government’s point of view regarding the need to protect the economy in the face of the government failure to bring holders of ill-gotten wealth to task. The reports that the amount that has been stashed away by unscrupulous business groups is in the region of USD 53 billion, enough to cover the country’s debt is offensive to people who are living on the margins and falling below it due to high taxes and inflation. There is no sign that the government will take action these companies and individuals to bring in that money.
The ability of a government to crack down on the protest movement in a context in which it has waning public support will be limited. The security forces will be concerned about the repercussions to them of acting on behalf of a government that is both unpopular with the masses of people and is shying away from democratic elections. The armed forces are part of the people and will feel with them and for them.
The Canadian government’s sanctioning of two former presidents of Sri Lanka for violations of international human rights will also be a warning that the same fate can befall them. It is to be remembered that the security forces under former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa acted with utmost restraint in confronting the protest movement as they did not wish to go against the wishes of the people and support a president who had so evidently lost his mandate.
On the other hand, if the government decides to go ahead with the elections its fears are likely to be realized. The inability of the government to get the economy rebooted will go against its electoral prospects. While there is an appearance of economic stability and no long lines outside fuel stations or long hours of power cuts, the economy is providing a significantly smaller income to the vast majority of people who find it difficult if not impossible to make ends meet. The economy shrank by 8 percent last year and is expected to shrink by 4 percent this year. With the long anticipated IMF loan yet to be secured, the government is unable to access international credit lines for purposes of economic growth.
A significant loss or even a whitewash at the local government elections will mean a further reduction in the legitimacy of the government. The government’s ability to make and implement its decisions will be negatively impacted in the aftermath of an electoral setback. At the present time the government is able to claim the legitimacy of the mandate received it received at the general elections of August 2020 which gave it a near two-thirds majority and even today a solid block of 134 seats out of 225. The success of the protest movement last year in forcing the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eroded the legitimacy of that mandate. The skillful use of political and military power by President Ranil Wickremesinghe who succeeded him turned the tables on the protest movement. However, a loss at the local government elections will weaken the government’s ability to continue to govern effectively.
The next phase of the protest movement, whether or not the local government elections are held, will be led by the mainstream opposition political parties. It will be unlike the first phase, which was spontaneous and did not have an organized political leadership with it. As a result, last year’s protest movement could not replace the former president and his government when they resigned from office with their own leadership. On this occasion, however, it will be the mainstream opposition political parties that will lead the protest movement. Their main demand will be to hold general elections which will coincide with the president getting the power to dissolve parliament after two and half years of its term. In these circumstances, the president has a shrinking time frame to initiate the political reforms he has been promising for the past three months.
The promise, which has generated much hope especially in the north and east of the country, and amongst the ethnic and religious minorities, is the promise to resolve the vexed ethnic conflict that has been with the country since the dawn of its independence. If he so chooses, President Wickremesinghe can make his mark in Sri Lanka’s history as the leader who cleared the country of obstacles to national unity, reconciliation and development and set an example to the world that the Nobel Peace Prize committee would consider.
The president and the TNA, which represents most of the Tamil people in the north and east, have identified the issues as the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, release of prisoners held for decades under the Prevention of Terrorism Act even without charge, the repeal of the PTA, return of land acquired by the military and by the archaeological department without consideration of the rights of the property owners and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to look into the human rights violations of the past and recommend ways and means to heal the wounds of the past. These confidence building measures need to be taken before March 9.