Tough test ahead | Page 32 | Daily News

Tough test ahead

At a time when the resilience of the government is being tested with many strikes and protest campaigns and the very existence of the National Unity government is being questioned by sections of both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), its resolve will be put to the test even further, as the prospect of local government elections emerges.

Local government elections were last held in the country in 2011. Therefore, they are well overdue. Most local government bodies completed their term of office on March 31, 2015, some others in July that year and few others in October. A few local government bodies completed their term of office in 2013.

However the delay in holding polls has partly been due to changes in the boundaries of local government divisions. This was done through a Delimitation Commission which has now completed its findings amidst some controversy.

These changes - as well as changes to the relevant laws- will see a drastic increase in the number of elected representatives to 8825 in 336 Local Government bodies. At present, the total number of local government representatives amount to only about 4,500. Since the new bodies will be elected under new legislation, the Local Government Electoral (Amendment) Act no. 22 of 2012, a quarter of new representatives- over 2200- will be females.

PR system

After months of discussions and negotiations, most political parties have agreed that the system of elections will be a hybrid of the first past the post system based on electoral wards and the proportional representation (PR) system. Previous elections were conducted solely on the PR system. The exact ratio at which the two systems will be merged is awaiting confirmation but a 60:40 system is being mooted.

The combination of the two systems at the Local Government elections will also be a ‘test run’ because it is envisaged that the next general election will have a similar system, if proposed constitutional reforms to the electoral system are enacted through either an amendment to the Constitution or the drafting of a new Constitution.

What is concerning for the two major parties however are not the details of the election but rather their prospects at the polls and this is a major issue, at least for the SLFP. This is because of the unresolved state of its factional infighting between the mainstream group of the party headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and its Joint Opposition (JO) faction, led by his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The JO has an inherent advantage in that sitting members of Local Government councils were elected in 2011, the heyday of the Rajapaksa Presidency. Being the grassroots level workers of the SLFP, most of them were handpicked for their allegiance to Rajapaksa or his loyalists. The vast majority of them are now with the JO group.

It is also relevant to note that, at the last Local Government elections in 2011, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the coalition of which the SLFP was the major partner, won 270 of the 322 Local Government bodies. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) swept the board in the North and some parts of the East, winning 32 local councils. The UNP was only a distant third, winning only nine councils. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won five councils.

The UPFA’s dominance at the time was highlighted by its percentage of the overall vote- over 56 per cent. The UNP, blighted by internal divisions at that time managed just over 30 per cent of the vote. These percentages will no doubt be different at the next election.

The main issue at stake for the SLFP, until a few months ago, was whether it would contest as a single entity or whether the mainstream party and the JO faction would go their separate ways for the election. Now, it appears as if the JO faction wants to test its strength by contesting on its own.

The groundwork for this has already been done. If the JO does contest as a separate entity, it will be as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The nominal head of the party is former Minister G.L. Peiris. Former Minister Basil Rajapaksa is known to be the livewire behind the new venture which is recognised party and therefore able to contest elections in its own right.

The JO feels confident that, with about 50 parliamentarians from the SLFP and other smaller parties on board- as opposed to the mainstream party’s 45 SLFP parliamentarians- with the burden of incumbency and public dissatisfaction preying on the mainstream party and the Rajapaksa factor thrown in for good measure, it can emerge frontrunners at the poll, at the SLFP’s expense.

In fact, the JO is accusing the government of postponing the elections time and again claiming it is ‘running scared’ of elections. The government however disagrees and now, the mainstream SLFP is also gearing itself at the grassroots level for what is likely to be a bruising campaign.

Local Government polls

In the wake of recent disagreements and public spats between stalwarts of the mainstream SLFP and the UNP, there have also been some suggestions that the SLFP should unite and that the Local Government polls would be a good platform for that. However, it is learnt that these ideas have not found favour at the highest echelons of the party.

Instead, SLFP ministers have been given instructions to buckle down to work in their electorate and expect a poll sooner rather than later. There is a proposal to hold the election this year but a stumbling block is the Ordinary Level examination which is scheduled to be held in December. If this cannot be circumvented, elections would be held early next year.

Certainly the SLFP, with President Sirisena holding the highest office in the land and being a partner in government, wouldn’t want to play second fiddle to the JO. That is not only because it would cede control of Local Government bodies to the JO. It is also because an election result in favour of the JO would give the JO’s campaign a tremendous boost in the country and create a domino effect which could then spill over to national elections.

The UNP, on the other hand, cannot be content to watch the antics and infighting within the SLFP. While this is a golden opportunity for the party to regroup and resurrect, its campaign will be hampered by what is widely perceived as a lack of control while in government.

It is true that this is partly because it is in coalition with the SLFP and working with a SLFP President, so it cannot do as it pleases. Nevertheless, it is still answerable to the public on the promises it made on issues such as bringing those who were corrupt to justice, ensuring transparent and efficient government and generating economic benefits for the people.

Instead of making good on its promises, the UNP is now faced with the prospect of making excuses for unfulfilled pledges, asking for more time to honour its commitments and even having to answer questions about alleged corruption in its own ranks- hardly what a party which had been languishing in opposition for nearly twenty years would expect in its first two years in office.

Thus the Local Government elections – regardless of whether they are held later this year or early next year- offer the major political parties the tantalising prospect of testing their ‘bench strength’ vis-à-vis the electorate. It is also an opportunity for the voter to send these parties a message- a message that they will not be able to ignore.

The lessons they learn from this election could therefore set the tone for the next general election, expected in little over two years-and indeed even a presidential election, if there is one. 

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