By Jehan Perera –
The relatively smooth manner in which the government succeeded in postponing the forthcoming provincial council elections, in the aftermath of its failure to pass the 20th Amendment, is an indicator of the weakness of the Joint Opposition. They were neither able to challenge the government in parliament nor mobilize public sentiment on the issue. It has been left to a retired chief justice to file his own individual action in the courts. The question is why the Joint Opposition, which has over 50 MPs in parliament who are pledging their commitment to the country, was unable or unwilling to mobilize public sentiment of the postponement of the elections.
Prior to the passage of the Provincial Council Election Amendment Act, elections were due in three provincial councils, namely the Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern provincial councils. Both the Sabaragamuwa and North Central provinces have been strongholds of the SLFP. At the last general elections the SLFP won more votes than any other party in the Sabaragamuwa province, and came a close second in the North Central province. However, with the break up of the SLFP and its existence today in two factions, with the Joint Opposition controlling the larger one, the party will find it difficult to claim the upper hand anywhere in the country, and not even in the Sabaragamuwa and North Central provinces. The Joint Opposition’s strength is that it has the allegiance of the majority of elected SLFP representatives, both at the national and local levels. It is not certain that this will translate into the ability to get the majority of SLFP voters onto their side.
The failure of the Joint Opposition to present an alternative social, political or economic vision for the betterment of the country is its major weakness. It is notable that the Joint Opposition has failed to evolve in terms of their policies and programmes since the electoral defeats of 2015. There is no new thinking or new leadership that has emerged so far from the ranks of the Joint Opposition. Even the emergence of one of the potential stars of the Joint Opposition, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has been confined to the single issue of equating the government’s proposed constitutional reforms with succumbing to Tamil separatism and the break up of the country. While the unity of the country is very important to the majority of the voters, it is unlikely that they see this threat as a real one so soon after the end of the thirty year war.
At the present time the Joint Opposition is confined to the position of criticizing what the government is doing or not doing but unable to offer any constructive or alternative proposals themselves. The ability of the Joint Opposition to retain the support of the majority of elected SLFP politicians is that they have been hopeful of getting back the untrammeled power they once had when the previous government was in power. The public manifestations of support they were able to mobilize, most recently at the May Day celebrations, gave them hope that a takeover of government was imminent. But nothing seems to be happening. It appears that the leadership of the Joint Opposition is preoccupied with problems of their own, including evading the tentacles of the law for the serious acts of corruption and criminal enterprise during their period of government.
In this context, the main reason for the postponement of local government and more recently the provincial council elections by the government is not due to the fear of the government parties actually losing to the joint opposition. Voters especially in the rural areas have been conscious that it is the incumbent government that is in control of economic and other resources that can transform their lives. Therefore there has been a strong streak of pragmatism demonstrated by voters in local level elections. When they see no imminent change of government in the offing, they opt to vote for its representatives at the local level rather than for the opposition who are disempowered at the central level.
The decision to postpone elections is an outcome of at least two other factors. The first is that when the government is poised to present its constitutional reform proposals to the general public, and needs unity within its ranks, it does not want its members openly clashing and discrediting each other to win at those elections. Unless there is an agreement amongst the main parties to fight the elections under a common electoral symbol, as occurred during the presidential election of 2015, when the “swan” became the symbol of the then opposition parties and their common candidate, elections will add to the tensions and rivalries amongst the coalition partners. In the case of the North Central province there is a further reason why the government would prefer not to go to the polls at this time.
The North Central province borders the former war zones of the North and East. As a result the people living especially in the border villages of these two districts were subjected to attack by the LTTE and suffered during the years of war. As a result there continues to be a considerable degree of support amongst them for the former government and its leadership. As the Polonnaruwa district within the North Central province is the home base of President Sirisena, it is a matter of both sentiment and prestige to him to perform well at elections in his home district. In a three or four cornered race in the North Central Province, in which the UNP, the two factions of the SLFP and the JVP take part, the results may not be too good for the president’s faction of the SLFP. The president would be concerned about not obtaining a big victory in his home province of the North Central Province and his home district of the Polonnaruwa District.
Therefore, the main beneficiary of the postponed provincial elections would be President Sirisena and his faction of the SLFP. This would require a political quid pro quo from the President which is likely to be support for the constitutional reform process. Any electoral contest, even at the local or provincial levels, where the two main coalition partners fight against each other as political rivals will conceivably harm the relationship between them in violation of the well known maxim of “do no harm.” The government’s strategic planners would not wish to do anything at this time that would jeopardize the possible resolution of the ethnic conflict that has plagued the country since its independence nearly 70 years ago. By way of contrast, in the case of a referendum, the government parties, and the ethnic minority parties will be on the same side. Their unity and sense of common purpose will be greatly strengthened by this collaboration.
At the presidential election President Sirisena won an absolute of the majority of votes cast. A referendum can seek to replicate, if not improve upon, these results to be followed up by local elections. The government has tabled the report of the steering committee on constitutional reform to parliament. The report gives its recommendations in the form of options. It shows a high degree of creativity in its effort to bridge the gap between the different ethnic, religious and political perspectives that exist in the polity. It is significant that the release of the steering committee report has not generated either political controversy or mass mobilization of public dissent. The adroit manner in which the report has dealt with the two most controversial issues of the unitary state and the foremost place of Buddhism indicates that the government will be able to proceed to a referendum. The passage of the constitutional reform package is undoubtedly the most important challenge facing the government, and indeed the country itself.