A rising tide lifts all boats

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By 2017-12-07

By Dr Nalaka Godahewa

After waiting for more than 2 ½ years without any kind of election, the voters of this country are now hopeful that they will, finally, have an opportunity to express their views about the current leadership of the country. Though some powerful fractions in the present Hybrid Government were trying their best in various dubious ways to postpone the election including a petition to the High Court, the Elections Commission has finally called for nominations for all the Local Government bodies.

Provincial Councils are institutions with a fair amount of power vested in them by the respective Governing Acts. In most of the developed countries people take local council elections quite seriously and give careful consideration to the election pledges of the candidate. You always find qualified and respected individuals from the area coming forward to contest local council elections in these countries.

In Sri Lanka, unfortunately, the functions and the powers of local councils are not well understood by the public. That is why, except for a few large cities, even the mayoral candidates have not been of high quality in the past. The result of not sending high quality representatives to the local councils is the lack of strategic input, inefficiency and widespread corruption.

The Provincial Councils, which were forced upon us in 1987 by the Indian leaders, also have created so much confusion in the administration due to the overlapping of responsibilities between the Provincial Councils and the local authorities. Prior to the introduction of Provincial Councils system, the country had a well-structured administrative mechanism. The civil administrative service and the political authorities were working in tandem, with clearly defined roles. If the country can go back to a more refined version of the old system, it is possible to save a colossal amount of money and also be more productive in meeting the needs of the people. But the question is who has the political will to propose it in the current context?

Political Drama

The much-awaited Local Government elections have unfolded so much drama in the political arena. The new President since he came to power in January 2015 has demonstrated so much reluctance to face the Local Government elections. First he kept extending the term of some Local Government bodies without dissolving them. Once all the councils were dissolved, the Government found another excuse not to hold the elections. This time it was the need to change the electoral system. The Government appointed a Delimitation Committee to reconstitute the electoral system of the Local Governments, which took ages to submit their report. The Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government challenged the Report, which was submitted causing further delay to the process. Even after the final report was submitted, the Ministry was delaying the publication of the relevant Gazette notification.

People have forgotten how many episodes were involved in this drama, until the final Gazette was published and the Elections Commission announced that it would fix the dates for nominations and elections. Then we found a group of some unrelated citizens going to Court and obtaining a Stay Order preventing the implementation of the Gazette notification pertaining to Local Government bodies. The Joint Opposition and the JVP as well as the UNP pointed fingers at the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, saying he was the hidden hand behind this act. Notwithstanding these possible manipulations, the Elections Commission decided to go ahead with the elections for 93 local bodies where there were no issues related to the Court order. That obviously put the Government in a spot because those 93 local bodies were more likely to be won by the Joint Opposition who may contest under a new symbol. Suddenly the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, appeared, informing Parliament that the six petitioners who had challenged the Gazette notification have undertaken to voluntarily withdraw their Petitions. It was just a couple of days before he was screaming in Parliament denying any involvement with these petitioners.

Public clueless

The general public has no idea what could happen next. Most people quite justifiably doubt the intentions of the Government at this stage. It is not clear who actually wants to delay the elections because the Government comprises two major political parties.

The SLFP and the UNP have their own agendas, which are sometimes are in conflict. Both parties want to select the ideal time for them to face an election. In certain situations both parties jointly want to avoid elections. A classic example was when three provincial councils got automatically dissolved in September having completed their respective terms. These were North Central, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils. Neither the SLFP led by President Sirisena nor the UNP led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would have been confident in winning in any of these three Provinces. The Tamil and Muslim parties have the upper hand in the Eastern Province while former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now leading the Joint Opposition is said to be strong in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces.

This prompted the Government to introduce a new Bill in Parliament that helped in delaying the elections in these provinces. The Provincial Council Elections Amendment Bill was passed in Parliament with a 2/3 majority after so much drama where the Opposition accused the bill anti democratic. Following the passing of the bill, the former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva filed a Fundamental Rights Petition in the Supreme Court seeking an Interim Order by way of a direction that the Amendments shall not be operative till the final determination of this Petition. The case is currently pending in courts.

Election scare

The bottom-line is that elections have become scares under the new Government, which came to power promising good governance. One of the fundamental rights of a citizen in a democratic country is the right to vote. However voting is possible only if there are elections. All indications are that the current Government prefers to delay elections at any cost. The only reason why the UNP backbenchers seem to be supporting the holding of Local Government elections, currently, is the belief that a spilt in the SLFP would help them. They also believe that once the election is over they can get the support of the Sirisena fraction in the councils. But this could end up being a serious miscalculation given the public support for the Rajapaksa led Joint Opposition, at this stage. On the other hand chances are very high that the Sirisena led SLFP could become a poor third and possibly fourth in most of the councils. If that happens that will be beginning of a new political culture as the UNP will be able to confirm the argument that President Sirisena's victory in January 2015 was possible only due to the UNP vote base.

There is so much public outcry on social media against a possible coalition between the SLFP and the Joint Opposition. Supporters seem to be worried that Mahinda Rajapaksa would repeat the same mistake he did at the Parliamentary elections having agreed to contest under President Sirisena. However, signs are that it is unlikely to happen. The Joint Opposition is demanding the Sirisena fraction to leave the Government if there is to be any possibility of a coalition. The types of politician, in the Sirisena fraction who still hang on to the Government are not likely to give up their ministerial perks that easily. They know very well that as per the 19th Amendment, the current Parliament will continue till 2020 and they do not want to be in Opposition until then.

Most of them would rather hope to switch sides just before the next Parliamentary election.

Public opinion

For people, there is going to be an opportunity to express their views about the current Government. The Local Government elections will be the test of acceptance of the work done so far by the Government. Though there may be so many parties contesting there can only be two camps for the voters to select. Those who directly and indirectly represent the Government and those who genuinely oppose the Government would be the two choices.

(Dr. Nalaka Godahewa is a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka and a former chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism)

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