Politics make a comeback as pandemic wanes | Daily News

Politics make a comeback as pandemic wanes

As Sri Lanka slowly commences the process of easing the nation from ‘lockdown’ and returning to ‘normal’, politics is also slowly re-emerging after being in virtual hibernation for over a year, necessitated by the restrictions forced upon the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lifting of ‘lockdown’ restrictions itself has been welcomed by the general public but there are also some concerns that Sri Lankans are over indulging in their new found freedoms which could trigger yet another wave of potentially deadly COVID-19 infections, serious illness and death.

State Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana has observed that people are seen gathering in large numbers in places of worship and other public places. “People are seen behaving as if the pandemic is over; but it is not,” Minister Jayasumana said, urging caution in the way the public interacts in social situations.

In what is an indication that politics was slowly but surely coming to the fore once again, there has been speculation about conducting the Provincial Council (PC) elections throughout the country. These elections are long overdue, with the terms of the councils lapsing in 2018 and 2019.

The elections have not been held due to a legal impasse relating to the conduct of PC polls due to legislative changes that were made during the previous Government headed by then President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

It will be recalled that the PCs were set up in the country following the July 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord signed between then President J. R. Jayewardene and then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It was aimed at decentralising power from the Central Government to the provinces.

Provincial Council elections

The creation of the PCs required an amendment to the Constitution, which was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment came into force on November 14, 1987. The legislation governing the PCs was enacted as the Provincial Councils Act No. 2 of 1988.

The first elections to PCs in the country took place on April 28, 1988 in North Central, North Western, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. The next round of polls was held on June 2, 1988 when elections were held for the Councils in Central, Southern and Western Provinces.

The Indo-Lanka Accord also required the merger of the Eastern and Northern Provinces into one administrative unit. In September 1988 President J. R. Jayewardene issued a proclamation enabling the merger of the Eastern and Northern Provinces and creating the North Eastern Province.

Elections to the merged North-Eastern Province were held on November 19, 1988. However, in March 1990, then Chief Minister of the merged North Eastern Province, Varadarajah Perumal made a unilateral declaration of Eelam, forcing then President Ranasinghe Premadasa to dissolve the Council.

The North Eastern Province was ruled directly from Colombo until it was dissolved on December 31, 2006 following a petition filed in the Supreme Court by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). This led to the creation of two separate provinces, the Northern Province and the Eastern Province.

The first elections to the Eastern Province were held on May 10, 2008. The Northern Province was ruled directly by the Government in Colombo as most of its areas were then under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Its first elections were held only on September 21, 2013.

Proportional Representation system

All these elections were held under the Proportional Representation (PR) system of elections. However, changes to the electoral system were introduced in 2017 by the then government when it enacted the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act No. 17 of 2017.

These changes provided for a new, mixed system of elections, where 50 per cent of the members for an administrative district would be elected through electorates under the first-pass-the-post system (FPP) and the other fifty per cent of members through district level PR.

These changes meant that ‘electorates’ for each Provincial Council needed to be defined. For this purpose, in October 2017, then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a Delimitation Committee with a mandate to delimit such electorates and to submit its report within a period of four months.

In March 2018, the report of the Delimitation Committee was submitted to Parliament by then Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Faiszer Musthapha. However, at a vote taken in August 2018, Parliament rejected the report, with no votes in favour and 139 votes against it.

Thereafter, then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya appointed a Delimitation Review Committee headed by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However progress on the issue came to a standstill after the constitutional crisis in October 2018, when President Sirisena sacked Premier Wickremesinghe.

In the last few months of his Presidency, President Sirisena attempted to conduct the PC polls. At the time, he was also the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Because of the legal impasse, he was compelled to seek an opinion from the Supreme Court (SC) regarding the matter.

In September 2019, the SC ruled that the PC elections could not be held in the absence of a report of the Delimitation Review Committee as it would be in conflict with the provisions in the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act No. 17 of 2017.

This has meant that the elections have been in limbo for several years now. The new Government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had prioritised the conducting of these elections but soon after the President took office in November 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, derailing these plans.

For elections to be conducted without further delay, the Government would still need to amend the existing legislation. However, with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its allies enjoying a comfortable two-thirds majority in Parliament, this is unlikely to be a major obstacle.

This is the rationale for Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, known as the SLPP’s political strategist, indicating that the PC elections could be held in the first quarter of next year. This would allow not only changes to legislation but also time for the nation to re-emerge from the pandemic.

Last week, Minister Rajapaksa told the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Electoral Reforms that the polls will most likely be held during this period. Amendments to the existing legislation would allow the election to be held on the PR system, as it was previously done for all PC polls in the past.

The Government will now ramp up preparations for the elections. It will be the ruling SLPP’s first real test of popularity since it won the General Election in August last year. The poll would also serve as a chance for the public to assess the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the issue of PC polls is likely to keep the Government occupied, the main Opposition Party in Parliament, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) also had other issues to contend with, as it prepares to confront the ruling party in its first elections where free campaigning will be allowed.

SJB leaders were concerned about the health of one of its stalwarts, former Minister Harin Fernando. Fernando, who had suffered from a heart ailment, had announced on social media that he would be undergoing major heart surgery which was considered ‘decisive’ and of eight hours in duration.

As SJB leaders conducted religious observances and awaited the outcome of Fernando’s surgery, he made a successful recovery. Expressing his gratitude to hospital staff who cared for him and for the best wishes he received, he said he “I cannot imagine standing on my feet again after that major surgery”.

SJB and Gamage

In what was a less welcome development for the SJB, it is now embroiled in a dispute with its National List Parliamentarian, Diana Gamage. This week SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara announced that the party’s Disciplinary Committee has decided to expel Gamage from the party.

Gamage came into the limelight initially as the Secretary of the ‘Apey Jathika Peramuna’ (AJP) a political party registered with the Elections Commission and carrying rights to the party’s symbol, the Telephone. It is the ‘Telephone’ that is now being used as the party symbol by the SJB.

When the faction led by Sajith Premadasa defected from the United National Party (UNP) early last year in the lead up to the General Elections, it had to register a symbol and a party within a short period of time. It was Gamage that came to the aid of the SJB then, handing over her party symbol.

Now however, the SJB and Gamage have parted ways. Matters came to a head when Gamage voted in favour of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. This was the basis on which Gamage was expelled from the SJB, as the party had taken a collective decision not to endorse the 20th Amendment.

Gamage disputes this, stating that people “who were invited to her house to take shelter from the rain are changing the locks of the house and evicting her”. “How can the SJB expel me from my party without informing me? Some members of the Committee were unaware of this,” she told Parliament.

Although Gamage’s position as a Member of Parliament is at some risk because she is nominated on the National List and not elected, previous attempts by many political parties to expel sitting, dissenting Parliamentarians have not been very successful and have led to protracted legal disputes.

It appears that Gamage too is likely to resort to this course of action. This would be a distraction for the SJB that it does not require at this time, as the party will be challenging the performance and policies of the Government in the PC polls and will be keen to prove that it is a viable Opposition.

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