Pros and cons of holding LG Polls | Daily News

Pros and cons of holding LG Polls

Timing of election, a debatable issue.
Timing of election, a debatable issue.

Despite the political and economic turmoil Sri Lanka witnessed in 2022, there has never been a dull moment in the political landscape and so it was last week as the country prepared for Local Government elections amidst some controversy as to whether it will be held or not.

Local Government (LG) elections were last held in February 2018. Those elections saw the then newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) emerge victorious under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership. That set the tone for their win in Presidential and General Elections later.

The term of the Local Government bodies elected in 2018 came to an end in 2022. In keeping with the provisions in the legislation governing these institutions, their term of office was extended by a year. There are no provisions to extend their term of office any further and polls must be held this year.

The Elections Commission has been laying the groundwork for the elections. They have maintained at all times that they are ready and able to hold the polls. However, the matter has been embroiled in controversy due to other issues that have made the conduct of the polls a complicated exercise.

Economic factor

Speculation that the elections may be postponed heightened when a Retired Army Colonel, W. M. R. Wijesundara petitioned the Supreme Court stating that, given the current economic circumstances in the country, this was not an opportune time to conduct elections as it would result in a significant cost.

The petition is being heard in the Supreme Court. In written submissions, the Secretary to the Finance Ministry Mahinda Siriwardena noted that all revenue sources locally and internationally have been reduced and, as a result, managing public finances has become extremely challenging.

Another contentious issue was a letter issued by Neil Hapuhinna, the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, asking officials to cease accepting deposits from candidates. In his letter, Hapuhinna implies it was issued following a decision taken at a Cabinet meeting.

Opposition parties raised this issue in Parliament claiming that the Government was attempting to postpone the elections. Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena who is also the Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government dismissed this notion.

There was no Cabinet decision to this effect, the Prime Minister told Parliament in response to questions from Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. There was no Cabinet discussion on the issue of elections, he said.

The letter sent by the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs was written in error and was withdrawn as soon as the error was discovered, within about an hour or so, Prime Minister Gunawardena assured, saying there were no plans to postpone elections.

More controversy was to follow when the Government introduced the Regulation of Election Expenditure Bill in Parliament last week. The Bill was introduced by Minister of Justice, Prisons Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe but was criticised by the Opposition.

That was because Dr. Rajapakshe had previously given an undertaking that the Bill would be deferred by a month. The Opposition claimed that, by introducing the Bill, the Government was attempting to delay elections as it would require more time to conduct elections according to the new laws.

Election campaign

The Bill calls for a disclosure of campaign financing and sets limits for the amount of funds candidates and political parties can spend on elections. The provisions of the Bill apply to all national polls such as Local Government, Provincial Council, General and Presidential Elections in the future.

The Bill was passed by Parliament with 97 votes for and 36 votes against, a majority of 61 votes. The SJB and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) voted against the Bill despite saying they supported its provisions. They had requested an amendment preventing its application to the current polls.

Whether the provisions of the new legislation will apply to the ongoing Local Government elections campaign is unclear as yet. Nevertheless, the Elections Commission has assured that it will take steps to ensure that all necessary regulations are formulated in time for the ongoing Local Government polls.

Regardless of the controversies related to the election, all major political parties have been very keen and upbeat about their prospects at the polls. Most have submitted nominations for most Local Councils and the nomination period concluded without any major incidents being reported.

The Elections Commission announced that the election will be held on March 9. Responding to concerns about meeting the expenses involved in conducting the poll, the Commission has assured it would be able to do so, saying the cost would likely be less than the estimated ten billion rupees.

The ruling SLPP sees the election as an opportunity to test its strength, safe in the knowledge that whatever the outcome of the poll, it would not result in a change of Government. This follows speculation that the SLPP’s popularity has dipped to some extent following the events of 2022.

The thinking of the SLPP is that, even if its support base has diminished to some extent, the Local Government polls will provide a measure of that. With General Elections not due until August 2025, it is confident that there is ample time to improve its performance, as it holds the reins of Government.

There are similar sentiments in the United National Party (UNP) which is led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP performed poorly at the August 2020 General Elections, polling less than 250,000 votes islandwide and returning only one National List seat as a result of that.

With President Wickremesinghe unexpectedly being called upon to fill the void created by the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July last year, there has been a sense of recovery and rejuvenation in the rank and file of the party which hopes for an improved performance.

The party will be concentrating on its traditional strongholds in urban centres such as Colombo and Kandy Municipal Councils and also in areas with a multi-ethnic demographic. The UNP is of the view that the Local Government polls are a timely opportunity to measure its resurgence after July 2022.

There has been no formal electoral agreement between the SLPP and the UNP. However, the two parties have agreed to co-operate with each other in many Local Councils, so that the votes for the two parties accumulate to one party, thereby enhancing the prospects of that party to win the council.

For example, the SLPP did not file nominations for the Colombo Municipal Council, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia Municipal Council and the Kolonnawa Urban Council. The understanding is that the party at its grassroots level will co-operate with UNP candidates in these three Local Councils.

Also hopeful of success is the SJB. Given the ongoing economic crisis, the SJB sees itself as the major Opposition party in the country. It is of the view that any disaffection with the SLPP and the UNP will be to its advantage. This will be the first Local Elections contested by the SJB.

That the SJB is going all out to register victory became clear when Colombo District Parliamentarian Mujibur Rahuman sacrificed his seat in Parliament to contest as the mayoral candidate for the Colombo Municipal Council. Colombo has been a traditional stronghold of the UNP for decades.

Perhaps the greatest forward momentum as a political party in the lead up to the election has been seen in the JJB, the Parliamentary arm of the JVP. The party has been conducting an intense campaign throughout the country and attracting large crowds and is hopeful of greater returns at this election.

JJB leaders are confident that its vote base will increase significantly at this poll. They believe that voters are disenchanted with the mainstream parties such as the UNP, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and their off-shoot parties, the SLPP and the SJB after decades of rule by their leaders.

While there is acknowledgment that the JJB has indeed increased its level of support, just how significant this is and whether it will be sufficient to win elections in a traditionally two-party system remains to be seen. For that reason, these polls are extremely crucial for the JJB and its leadership.

With all the major parties in the fray and public interest in the election campaign at a high, the 2023 Local Government elections are being watched with keen interest not because of their impact on Local Councils but because of their importance as a valid barometer of the country’s political sentiment.

 


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