Tall hopes on polls | Daily News

Tall hopes on polls

They maybe elections that select representatives to the lowest tier in the political arena but the local government elections that are now due created a huge controversy which seems to have resolved last week- although more legal twists and turns cannot be ruled out, even at this late stage.

After much jostling and jousting between major political parties, there was a general consensus that the elections would be held in February next year. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced at a public meeting in Bingiriya that the polls will be held in the first week of February but said the exact date of the elections will be decided by the Elections Commission.

Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya was even more specific, stating that the elections would be held on or before February 17. There is a consideration for the elections to be conducted on a Saturday because it would avert the loss of a working day and its detrimental effects on the economy, Deshapriya said.

Deshapriya called the elections historic, not because of the legal disputes that have overshadowed it but because this will be the first instance when the entire country selects local government representatives on one day. Displaying his characteristic wit and alluding to the ongoing controversies in cricket, the charismatic former Elections Commissioner said that the “match can be played if the pitch is ready, the two teams are ready and the toss has taken place” but added that it could be stopped “if there was smog”.

That the elections have been finally decided on must come as a great relief to some political parties but it is no secret that the process had to undergo several convulsions because of the rivalry between the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its breakaway faction, the Joint Opposition (JO) which in its new incarnation will appear as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

‘Reunification talks’

Initially though, discussion was driven by a section of the mainstream SLFP which was keen to contest the polls along with the JO. This move was spearheaded by Minister Susil Premajayantha. This is not a new role for Premajayantha. It will be recalled that in the lead up to the August 2015 general election, Premajayantha, who was then the General Secretary of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), was instrumental in the UPFA contesting those elections as one entity.

Premajayantha was responsible for accommodating many loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the UPFA’s nomination lists, including that of Rajapaksa himself for the Kurunegala district. It was a move that prompted President Sirisena to make an unprecedented ‘address to the nation’ declaring that even if the UPFA emerged as the single largest party at the polls, Rajapaksa would not be appointed Prime Minister.

This time around, Premajayantha was again the prime mover in the ‘reunification talks’. However he had the blessings of President Maithripala Sirisena to do so. It has been argued that these discussions were the result of genuine concerns expressed by President Sirisena who didn’t wish to be seen as presiding over an irrevocable division of the SLFP. The President’s critics - many of whom are in the JO - contend that the talks materialised because there was a concern in the mainstream SLFP that they would be relegated to the third place in some local government divisions.

The former theory gained credence when several petitions were filed in the Court of Appeal challenging the gazette notification related to elections issued by Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha. This led to the JO and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) submitting motions of no-confidence against Musthapha in Parliament.

Even as the mainstream SLFP and the JO were trading accusations about the conduct of elections, the Elections Commission emerged with what amounted to a fait accompli: it was going ahead with polls to 93 local government bodies, on the basis that these were unaffected by the re-demarcation process and as such, were not affected by the stay order in the Court of Appeal.

Musthapha then successfully negotiated the withdrawal of the petitions filed in the Court of Appeal, leading to the announcement of the polls by the Elections Commission. Now, the stage is set for election in February, but the SLFP’s internal travails continue.

In what could be seen as a pre-emptive move, SLPP candidates submitted nominations for several local government bodies, even while discussions were still underway with the SLFP. This was seen as a show of strength from the SLPP, signalling that they are serious about contesting elections on their own steam. Of course, had SLFP-SLPP talks succeeded, the latter always had the option of withdrawing their candidates from the election.

However, the dialogue between the SLFP and the SLPP failed for an entirely different reason: the SLPP was insisting on the SLFP withdrawing from the government. While this may have been an alluring prospect for the SLPP, it was not good negotiating strategy.

Ministerial portfolios

If the SLFP withdrew from government and its parliamentarians joined ranks with the JO on the opposition benches, it would still be in a minority, with only 95 seats. Even if it had plans to entice some parliamentarians from the United National Party (UNP), they would have to engineer a crossover of some 18 UNP (or other party) MPs to secure a working majority in Parliament. While it is common in Sri Lankan politics for opposition MPs to join the government in return for ministerial portfolios, why would MPs already in government join another, rival party where they would be viewed as ‘outsiders’?

On the other hand, if the SLFP withdrew from government, it would be much easier for the UNP, which is already in government, to invite eight MPs to secure a working majority in Parliament. Given that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution now prevents the President from dissolving Parliament at his whim, President Sirisena would then be a prisoner in a totally UNP government. It is easy therefore to see why the negotiations between the SLFP and the SLPP stalled and then fell apart. Ironically, this has led to reparations between the SLFP and the UNP following discussions between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Shortly after these discussions, Wickremesinghe was to instruct his MPs not to be critical of the President while the two parties also agreed not to attack each other during the election campaign.

The confusion in the SLFP however continues. Minister Premajayantha was to re-iterate this week that reunification talks between the two factions were still ongoing. The SLFP has not abandoned efforts to unite the two factions of the party and talks were underway in various ways to achieve this, Premajayantha said. “Some ministers are talking to the media without knowing what is going on behind the scenes. We have not given up our efforts,” he noted.

JO’s double standard

However, days later, in what seemed to be remarks countering Minister Premajayantha’s claims, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, addressing a media briefing at SLFP headquarters, said that the SLFP will win the election “even without former President Rajapaksa”. “How can the JO members request the people to cast their vote to the SLPP while sitting in Parliament? SLPP is a political party which has been created to destroy the SLFP,” Samarasinghe remarked.

In a final twist to the tale, on Monday, a former member of the Ambagamuwa Pradeshiya Sabha filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court seeking an order to prevent elections being held to the Ambagamuwa Pradeshiya Sabha. In his petition, he has stated that the Ambagamuwa Pradeshiya Sabha had been divided into three Pradeshiya Sabhas (Norwood, Ambagamuwa and Maskeliya) and that this would lead to ethnic clashes. He claimed that this demarcation had affected the ethnic composition and in the process, rights of Sinhala Buddhists had been violated.

Whether that would lead to yet another postponement of the polls remains to be decided by the highest court in the land. In any event, it is unlikely to affect more than 300 other local government institutions- and the elections that will be held will be first test of popularity for the UNP, mainstream SLFP and the SLPP in two years. 

 


 

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