Selections before elections | Daily News

Selections before elections

The much awaited official announcement regarding local government elections finally came this week with Elections Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya announcing that polls will be conducted on February 10, allowing for a little over seven weeks of campaigning from now on.

As the number of eligible voters in the country increases, this will be the election at which the most voters will be participating: an estimated 15,760,809 voters will be eligible to elect 8,293 members to 24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 276 pradeshiya sabhas.

Already, there have been controversies regarding the election with the rejection of some nomination lists. The newly established Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which represents the Joint Opposition (JO) at the election is worst affected, with six nomination lists being rejected.

The SLPP is known to be particularly perturbed at the rejection of its nomination list for the Maharagama Urban Council. Maharagama is the stronghold of JO stalwart and Mahajana Eksath Peramuna leader Dinesh Gunawardena and the party was hopeful of a strong presence there.

Nomination lists

However EC Chairman Deshapriya was unapologetic about the elimination of nomination lists, while expressing his regret over their rejection. Nomination lists had been rejected solely on legal grounds and the Commission endorses the decision of the returning officers who rejected the lists, he said.

“We recognise the right of political parties or independent groups to seek legal redress. In the event of legal action we are prepared to explain how and why the nominations lists were rejected,” Chairman Deshapriya said.

The mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had two of its nomination lists rejected, as did the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK). Several independent groups also had their lists rejected. The United National Party (UNP) has been unaffected thus far.

If the rejection of six nomination lists was an inauspicious start to their campaign, the SLPP was acting undeterred. Their first salvo came from none other than their de facto leader, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who issued a statement strongly critical of not only the mainstream SLFP and the UNP but also the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

In an attempt to explain why the SLPP is contesting separately from the SLFP, Rajapaksa has launched a thinly veiled attack on President Maithripala Sirisena, being critical of the President for not endorsing his candidature whole heartedly at the August 2015 general election.

This is in reference to President Sirisena taking the unprecedented step of addressing the nation and stating that even if the SLFP won the election, Rajapaksa would not be appointed Prime Minister. In his statement, Rajapaksa argues that this was detrimental to the SLFP and led to the UNP emerging as the single largest party in Parliament following the election.

If anything, Rajapaksa’s statement indicates that the gloves are off in the tussle between the two factions of the SLFP. This is after weeks of frenzied negotiating, right up until the eleventh hour. In fact, Rajapaksa was not keen on any accord when Minister Susil Premajayantha met him last week in a final attempt to reach an agreement.

Local government polls

For many observers, the most interesting aspect of Rajapaksa’s statement was a reference to the next presidential election. Rajapaksa notes, providing exact dates and relating them to timeframes listed in the Constitution, that in his view, the next presidential election is due in November or December 2019. Thus, there is only a one and half year period between the local government polls and the next presidential election, Rajapaksa contends.

In this context, it is worth recalling that it was Rajapaksa who engineered a petition in the Supreme Court through the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), arguing that former President Chandrika’s Kumaratunga’s second term of office began in 1999 and ended in 2005, a year earlier than what Kumaratunga had envisaged.

The Supreme Court headed by then Chief Justice Sarath Silva held in Rajapaksa’s favour resulting in presidential elections being held in 2005 at which Rajapaksa emerged victorious. Thus, Rajapaksa is no stranger to interpreting nuances in the Constitution and exploiting them to his advantage.

Nevertheless, coming from a personality who is explicitly barred from contesting the next presidential election due to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution by virtue of having held that office twice, many find this to be an interesting argument, indicating that the SLPP has set its sights on the next presidential poll.

Opinion is already divided even within the SLFP on Rajapaksa’s assertion. Some say it is a moot point because an overhaul of the Constitution is currently in process and the fate of the Executive Presidency in its current form is hanging in the balance.

They point out that one of the options being considered by parliamentary steering committee of the Constitutional Assembly was for the President to be elected by Parliament. If these proposals materialise, there would not be another presidential election.

Besides, President Sirisena has pledged publicly more than once that he would not be running for President again. Some SLFP stalwarts have already proclaimed him as the SLFP candidate for the next presidential election, but the President has not endorsed such claims in any way.

Legal analysts also note that the preamble to the 19th Amendment contains a clause that may invalidate Rajapaksa’s argument. Article 1(2) of the 19th Amendment states that it would “come into force on the date on which this Act comes into operation”, with the exception of certain clauses which would come into force much later, following the general election.

SLFP and SLPP

Thus, whether the timeframes cited by Rajapaksa apply to the current tenure of office of President Sirisena would be an argument that could be canvassed in a court of law, if matters proceed to a legal dispute between the SLFP and SLPP factions. If indeed presidential elections need to be held, such an eventuality is now a distinct possibility. This sabre rattling between the SLFP and the SLPP is sure to ratchet up a notch or two in the weeks to come, the likely beneficiary of this dispute being the UNP. However, the UNP can ill-afford to rest on its laurels, because it has so few of them to boast of.

It does have liabilities, however. The most significant among them is the alleged involvement of former ministers and parliamentarians with those implicated in the Central Bank bond sale which is now the subject of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. This has dented the party’s image in the minds of the public, especially when the government has failed to prosecute those responsible for alleged acts of corruption in the previous regime.

It is perhaps with this in mind that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe indicated this week that arrangements have been made to hear twenty court cases dealing with corruption on a daily basis with a view of expediting the process of penalising wrongdoers.

Some are questioning the pledge the government gave during the last election to eradicate corruption and to punish those who have robbed public funds, the Prime Minister acknowledged but stated that any action to deal with this issue would be taken within the existing judicial system.

With provincial council elections a certainty after the local government elections, Sri Lankans will have a surfeit of elections in 2018. Then there will be a lull before the next general election which is not due until 2020- but then, that may well be the calm before the storm. 

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