PC polls the next target for political parties | Daily News

PC polls the next target for political parties

Having secured victory at the Presidential Elections in late 2019 and at the general elections that followed in August 2020, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s political objective for 2021 was to obtain power in at least seven of the country’s nine Provincial Councils.

Elections to Provincial Councils throughout the country are overdue. That is because polls were not held due to a legislative loophole that made the conduct of the elections impossible. This occurred during the tenure of the previous government which was not very keen to proceed with elections.

During the previous government, there was discussion and debate about the system of elections. Prior to that, elections had been conducted solely on the proportional representation (PR) system but there were moves to revise that. This had already been done for elections to Local Government institutions.

Accordingly, the Provincial Councils Elections Act No.2 of 1988 was amended by Parliament. As a result, the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 17 of 2017 was passed and ratified in September 2017. Following these amendments, a Delimitation Committee was appointed.

The Delimitation Committee submitted its report to the then Minister of Provincial Councils, Faiszer Musthapha in February 2018. The report was put to Parliament in August but was defeated. Then, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya appointed a committee to review the Delimitation Committee report.

This committee, headed by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not provide a report in a timely manner. At the time, the then opposition claimed that, following its defeat at the 2018 February Local Government elections, the United National Party (UNP) was trying to avoid more polls.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena also attempted to conduct provincial polls. He sought an opinion from the Supreme Court as to whether elections could be held under the existing PR system. However, the court ruled that the polls could not be conducted outside the enacted legal provisions.

That situation remains unchanged today. If the government wished to hold Provincial Council elections, it would have to again activate the delimitation process amidst its accompanying obstacles. This effectively prevents a quick election, which is what the government was seeking.

Alternatively, the government could explore the possibility of conducting elections solely on the PR basis. To do so, it would have to again amend the legislation governing Provincial Councils. It is possible to do so, because the ruling party enjoys a near two-thirds majority in the current Parliament.

Provincial Council elections

It was against such a backdrop that the government was considering the issue of Provincial Council elections. The possibility of elections is further complicated by the ongoing corona virus pandemic which makes the conduct of a poll quite difficult, costly and risky from a public health perspective.

The government is also only too aware that its plans to conduct an early general election to maximise the gains of the presidential election were stymied by the pandemic. That led to the postponement of the general election not once but twice from April 2020 to June, until it was finally held in August.

There is also a section in the ruling party which questions the very concept of the effectiveness of Provincial Councils as the mechanism of devolution of power. This is because all Provincial Councils in the country have not been functioning for some time, some of them for as long as over three years.

This is a result of Provincial Council being held on a staggered basis by previous governments. The first councils that became non-operational were the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Councils. The terms of these councils ended in 2017 when they ceased to function.

The tenures of the Northern, North Western and Central Provincial Councils ended in 2018. The Uva, Southern and Western Provincial Councils concluded their terms of office in 2019. All these councils now operate under their respective governors who are appointed directly by the President.

In such circumstances, some ruling party stalwarts are of the view that the country could function just as effectively without Provincial Councils. They note that Sri Lanka has seen through two major crises- the Easter attacks and the corona virus pandemic- without functioning Provincial Councils.

Provincial Councils came into being as a result of 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in 1987 between then President J.R. Jayewardene and then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It was meant as a political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic issues and terrorism.

There was considerable opposition to Provincial Councils then on both sides of the ethnic divide. It is believed that Premier Gandhi’s decision to intervene with the Accord was one reason for the decision by Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to order his assassination four years later in 1991.

Although Provincial Councils were meant to be the unit of devolution of power, this concept ran into snags. The Indo-Lanka Accord required the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces for this purpose, subject to a referendum. Although the provinces were merged, the referendum was not held.

This resulted in a merged North Eastern Provincial Council. When its first elected Chief Minister, Varadaraja Perumal made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), then President Ranasinghe Premadasa dissolved the council. It was thereafter ruled by a Governor appointed by the President.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) petitioned the Supreme Court in 2006 against the North-East merger and the court ruled that it was null and void. Thereafter elections were held to the newly created Eastern Provincial Council in 2008. Polls were not possible in the North due to the Eelam war.

Following the end of the Eelam war in 2009, the first elections to the Northern Provincial Council were held in 2013 with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) emerging victorious. Former Supreme Court Justice C.V. Vigneswaran was the Northern Province’s first elected Chief Minister.

It is relevant to note that in the past few years when the Provincial Councils have not been functioning, the TNA has not been at the forefront of agitations to hold elections. In fact, the TNA tacitly supported the previous government when it moved to postpone provincial polls from time to time.

Presently, the TNA is in crisis with the factions within the alliance moving in different directions. Also, the party does not command the same degree of dominance over northern political landscape as it did a few years ago. This was quite evident in the results of the August 2020 general election.

A further dimension to potential provincial elections was added by former President Maithripala Sirisena. Voicing his views in his capacity as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena said that the party would consider contesting by itself instead of in coalition with the ruling SLPP.

This could occur if the SLPP continues to marginalise SLFP candidates in preparing nominations lists, Sirisena said. He referred to specific instances in which this had allegedly occurred at the general election last August. If this is repeated the SLFP would prefer to contest as a separate entity, he said.

Major opposition parties

The political reality though is different. It would be very advantageous to the ruling SLPP to conduct provincial polls now because the SLFP as well as the two other major opposition parties, the UNP and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) are all regrouping after their lacklustre performances at the polls.

Nevertheless, the current thinking within the government is that the time is not right for the conduct of Provincial Council polls. There are reasons other than the corona virus pandemic for this. One is the vexed question of which system of elections to utilise. The other is the proposed new Constitution.

As has been reported widely, a committee of experts headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva is currently busy drafting the proposed new Constitution. Among the prioritised objectives of the proposed new Constitution would be to review the unit of devolving power within a unitary country.

The proposed new Constitution will also examine the system of elections. It is likely that the preferred method of elections would be a hybrid between the PR and first-past-the-post systems. If a new Constitution is adopted, it would remove the current conundrum about conducting provincial polls.

Therefore, many with influence in the SLPP hierarchy feel that the best course of action for the government right now would be to defer Provincial Council elections until a new Constitution is enacted. This would mean that it is highly unlikely these elections will be held in 2021.

Although this would attract some criticism that the government is not honouring its commitment to democratic elections, it can be countered with the argument that electing councils which could become redundant when a new Constitution is enacted would be an unnecessary and costly exercise.

Based on all these considerations and the complications necessitated by the corona virus pandemic, it is highly likely that the Provincial Council election will be deferred for the time being. Whether they will eventually be held will depend on the proposed new Constitution and its unit of devolution.

While the opposition is likely to make an issue of this ‘postponement’ of elections, the SLFP, the UNP and the SJB will not be unduly perturbed. This will effectively allow these parties to reorganise and offer a semblance of resistance to the ruling SLPP which is politically dominant at present.