All set for LG Polls | Daily News

All set for LG Polls

People waiting in a queue to cast their vote.
People waiting in a queue to cast their vote.

Several events with significant political implications occurred last week as both the Government and the Opposition readied themselves for Local Government polls which itself is the subject of controversy with some uncertainty as to whether the elections for 340 Local Government institutions will go ahead.  

The speculation came as a result of a letter sent by the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs Neil Bandara Hapuhinna. In the letter, he had advised that the acceptance of deposits from prospective candidates for the election should not be accepted.  

The letter was withdrawn shortly after it was issued but by then it had received wide publicity, mostly on social media. There were protests from major Opposition parties which claimed that the Government was not keen on conducting the election and was attempting to postpone the poll.  

The leaders of the two major Opposition parties, Sajith Premadasa of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) both addressed hurriedly summoned media briefings claiming that the Government was attempting to postpone polls.  

Shortly afterwards, the Commissioner General of Elections, Saman Sri Ratnayake clarified the issue stating that the acceptance of such deposits will indeed proceed. There was no Government announcement postponing the poll. The acceptance of nomination papers commenced on Monday.  

Preparations for elections  

For its part, the two parties in Government, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the United National Party (UNP) led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe are making extensive preparations for the elections, conducting interviews to select candidates and activating their grassroots networks.  

There is however a case filed by a citizen, a retired Army officer, before the Supreme Court which challenges the conduct of the elections. The Elections Commission has said it is going ahead with all preparations for the poll but will of course be bound by any decision taken by the Supreme Court.  

It is against such a backdrop that another crucial political event was staged last week. That was the formation of the Nidahasa Janatha Sandhanaya (NJS) or Freedom Peoples’ Alliance. In the lead up to this, there were some concerns as to whether such an alliance would in fact materialise.  

The major partners in the NJS are the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Maithripala Sirisena, the Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya (ULS) led by Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara and the Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa (NJS) led by G. L. Peiris and Dullas Alahapperuma.  

Newly formed alliances  

Also joining in to form this new alliance of parties were several other smaller political parties such as the group of SLPP dissidents led by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Athuraliye Rathana Thera of the Vijaya Dharani Jathika Sabhawa and Gevindu Kumaratunga of the ‘Yuthukama’ organisation.  

The new party hopes to contest the Local Government elections as a single entity. Its symbol is the helicopter. The helicopter has been registered as a symbol of a political party by Nalaka Godahewa who is a member of the Alahapperuma-Peiris group. Hence the new party was able to use this symbol.  

A noteworthy factor was that all those in the new coalition were supporters of the SLPP, both at the 2019 Presidential Election when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was its candidate as well as at the August 2020 General Election. All those elected as MPs did so as candidates on SLPP nomination lists.  

It was noted that other dissidents such as Champika Ranawaka and Kumara Welgama, who contested the 2020 General Election on the SJB ticket have refrained from supporting the newly formed alliance, although they have significant differences of opinion with the SJB’s decisions and policies.  

Thus, the newly formed NJS represents the coming together of all the dissidents of the SLPP who now wish to distance themselves from the party after the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and wish to forge a political identity of their own, in view of the upcoming elections.  

With the UNP aligning itself with the SLPP, opposition to the Government is represented currently mostly from the SJB and the JVP, the latter contesting as the National Peoples’ Power (NPP). It remains to be seen as to how the formation of the NJS will, if at all, alter this equation.  

It is noted that most of the leading personalities in the new alliance are those who were prominent members in the Government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Many were ministers who concurred with the former President on most of his policy decisions. Few dared to lodge their protests at that time.  

There are also some obvious conflicts of interest that are difficult to reconcile in the new alliance. For instance, Wimal Weerawansa campaigned actively against Maithripala Sirisena at the 2015 Presidential Election but now finds himself in an alliance where Sirisena is a key figure.  

Therefore, whether the public will recognise this new alliance as a reasonable alternative to the SLPP without members of the Rajapaksa family or whether they will perceive it as an opportunistic ploy to return to office remains to be seen. Thus, the credibility of the new alliance has been questioned.  

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, more obstacles were to follow. A day after the party was launched with a public display of solidarity between the different groups, the Supreme Court delivered a verdict on the 2019 Easter attacks and held former President Sirisena responsible.  

Former President Sirisena, along with several others such as former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, Former Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera, former Intelligence Chiefs Nilantha Jayawardena and Sisira Mendis were all ordered by the court to pay different amounts of compensation.  

The highest fine was imposed on former President Sirisena, who was ordered to pay Rs. 100 million in compensation. He was found fault with for the failure to prevent the attacks even after having received intelligence information. The court ordered that the fines be paid from personal funds.  

SC verdict against former President  

The Supreme Court held that it was former President Sirisena’s obligation to have had a constant vigil over his ministerial functions, as national security was his portfolio and he should have exercised his supervision over his departmental heads, regardless of personal predilections for particular officers.   

The Supreme Court held that his failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 despite the Government having received intelligence information has infringed the fundamental rights enshrined under Article 12(1) and 14(1)(e) of the Constitution. The verdict comes as a severe blow to Sirisena.  

Since then, the former President has said that he does not have the funds to pay the fine imposed and would be asking friends to do so on his behalf. His brother, business magnate Dudley Sirisena was asked whether he will pay the fine and declared that he would not do so.  

“I respect the law. I am a person who always bows to the court’s decision. I am not a person who has the funds to pay compensation. Therefore, I have decided that we will collect the money from all our friends,” former President Sirisena said, in response to speculation about the payment that is due.  

There is no doubt that the Supreme Court verdict will damage Sirisena’s standing in the eyes of the public. There has been some discussion among the leaders of the various factions within the newly formed NJS as to whether Sirisena’s involvement in the party will cause more harm than benefit.  

Former President Sirisena will find this verdict quite ironical. It will be recalled that, in the aftermath of the Easter attacks, he appointed a Special Presidential Commission to probe the event. When the Commission submitted its report, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was President. The report sanctioned Sirisena.  

That Commission held that criminal proceedings should be instituted against the former President, a recommendation that hasn’t been pursued. Now Sirisena finds himself being held culpable again because of a measure that he himself instituted when he was the Sixth Executive President.   

It was former President Sirisena who enacted the 19th Amendment. This amendment reduces the scope of presidential immunity by permitting any citizen to challenge a President’s executive action by a fundamental rights application. This was the provision used in the Easter attacks case against Sirisena.  

As these events suggest, the political landscape is becoming volatile in light of the pending polls for Local Government bodies. That election itself is not vital but many are of the view that its result will provide a reliable barometer as to which way the country is heading in the coming years.    

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