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Waiting to Vote

In a few months, some Sri Lankans could be going to the polls again in what would the first electoral test of strength for the National Unity government which assumed office nearly two years ago.

This is because the tenure of the North Central, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils end on October 1 and elections will be due for those councils. The Elections Commission is to call for nominations in a gazette notification that is expected shortly.

Local government elections to over three hundred local government bodies throughout the country were due to be held in 2016 but have been delayed. The government maintains that issues related to the delimitation of electoral divisions are the reasons for the delay but the opposition accuses the government of postponing the election because it claims the government’s popularity has been dented in recent months.

Provincial polls though are a different prospect. That is because the polls will be held in three different regions in the country, each with its own demographic and socio-political quirks. It is also relevant to note that, at present, all provincial councils in the country barring the Northern Provincial Council are controlled by the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), an advantage that party secured at the height of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s powers.

Provincial Council polls

The other factor on which there has already been some discussion even before the provincial elections could be called is that, unlike with the local government polls, there appears to be no provision for the postponement of these elections.

This has been noted by Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. He is of the view that Provincial Council polls could be postponed only with the Amendment of Article 154 E of the Constitution. This article states that “A Provincial Council shall, unless sooner dissolved, continue for a period of five years from the date appointed for its first meeting and the expiration of the said period of five years shall operate as dissolution of the Council”.

This, seemingly, allows no discretionary clauses. “The Commission believes that this could not be amended with only a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This is a matter linked with the people’s franchise. Therefore, the Commission believes that it would require approval by the people at a referendum” Commission Chairman Deshapriya explained this week. The Commission has communicated its views to all political parties.

While the government is unlikely to pursue a referendum, Article 154E could still be contested. If that happens, the Supreme Court could be called upon to adjudicate on the issue as it is a matter of interpretation of the Constitution. This is in accordance with Article 125(1) of the Constitution.

The same Provincial Councils which are slated to go to the polls after their term expires on October 1, chose their representatives last in September 2012. At that election, the UPFA swept the board in all three provinces, although it could not obtain an absolute majority in the Eastern Province, where it set up an administration in partnership with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

Among the three provinces, perhaps the most interesting tussle will be in the North Central Provincial Council (NCPC). At the 2012 election, the UPFA was a runaway winner, garnering 61% of the popular vote and 21 seats in the 33-member Council. Much has changed since then.

Sirisena and Rajapaksa camps

At the presidential election in January 2015, the Anuradhapura district voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa but the Polonnaruwa district voted for their hometown candidate, Maithripala Sirisena. At the August 2015 general election that followed, the UPFA-which had candidates from both the Rajapaksa and Sirisena camps of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) - again emerged victorious in the Anuradhapura district while the United National Party (UNP) emerged winners in Polonnaruwa. However, it is worthwhile noting that the Anuradhapura district has more than twice as many voters as the Polonnaruwa district, so whoever wins this district will almost certainly win the province.

The tussle for power between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa camps in the SLFP has also been played out at the NCPC. Shortly after President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at the presidential election, Chief Minister S.M. Ranjith, a close loyalist of Rajapaksa was removed and Peshala Jayaratne, a Sirisena loyalist was appointed for the top job in the province. Recently too there have been simmering tensions between the two SLFP factions in the NCPC.

What also makes elections to the NCPC interesting is that both the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts are home to two SLFP heavyweights: Polonnaruwa is the political base of President Sirisena and Anuradhapura is where the SLFP’s General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake’s father Berty Premalal Dissanayake held sway as Chief Minister for 13 years. Thus the Sirisena camp of the SLFP will be keen to ensure that it prevails in the province.

In the Sabaragamuwa province too, the UPFA recorded an impressive victory at the last provincial polls in 2012, securing nearly 60% of the vote and 28 seats in the 44-member Council. At the last presidential election, both the Ratnapura and Kegalle districts voted in favour of Rajapaksa. At the general elections, however, the UNP secured the Kegalle district, while Ratnapura remained with the UPFA.

Ratnapura has often been a battleground for two prominent SLFP politicians, Minister John Seneviratne and former Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi. The former is now with President Sirisena and the latter is an avowed loyalist of Rajapaksa. When polls are held in the province, another proxy war between the two of them is likely.

Although the UPFA retained control of the Eastern Province at its last poll in 2012, that was in coalition with the SLMC. The UPFA won 14 seats while the SLMC won 7 seats, thus securing a working majority in the 37-member Council. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secured 11 seats while the UNP secured only 4 seats.

At the presidential election, however, all three districts- Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara (Digamadulla) - voted overwhelmingly for President Sirisena. At the general elections that followed, the UNP recorded convincing majorities in the Ampara and Trincomalee districts. In the Batticaloa district, the TNA secured more than half of the votes cast. Thus the overall outcome in this province could yet be anybody’s guess.

The major issue underpinning this election will be the division with the SLFP, between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa camps. Until now there has been in-fighting but, even at the August 2015 general election, the UPFA presented ‘combined’ lists of nominees with both camps represented in them. That is unlikely in the forthcoming polls.

The Rajapaksa camp and the Joint Opposition (JO) are gearing to contest as a separate entity. This is likely to be as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of which G.L. Peiris is the nominal leader.

The Rajapaksa camp has been toying with the idea of breaking away from the SLFP for some time now and the provincial polls may well force their hand. They will feel that, in the first round of elections, they have two provinces- in the North Central Province and Sabaragamuwa- where they can count on substantial grassroots level support.

It goes without saying that the performances of the two factions of the SLFP will be closely watched. Whoever emerges victorious can lay claim to having the endorsement of the large SLFP vote base. The reality though is that any split in the SLFP vote between the Sirisena led mainstream SLFP and Rajapaksa’s JO will only benefit the UNP which may well stand a chance of regaining power in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces after a lapse of many years.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was President he chose to stagger provincial council elections, possibly because he could then concentrate his party machinery on a few provinces at any given time.

Therefore, the polls in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces, if and when they are held, will only be the beginning of another round of elections. Polls will be due next year in the Northern, Central and North Western (Wayamba) provinces, followed by the remaining provinces (Uva, Western and Southern provinces) in 2019.

Thus, the provincial polls could provide an absorbing lead-up to the national elections which are due by 2020. More importantly, they will provide the voter with an opportunity to register their approval or dissatisfaction of the different political parties- and will also be the first test of popularity for the government, which has now been in office for almost two years. 

 


 

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