Pre-election fever hits all-time high | Daily News


Pre-election fever hits all-time high

Provincial council elections which have become a bone of contention between the major political parties looks set to be postponed yet again after the events of last week when the vote on the Delimitation Committee Report for the Delimitation of Electorates in Provincial Councils was defeated in Parliament.

In a rare show of apparent political unity, all major political groups including the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) voted against the Report, albeit for very different reasons. The final tally was 139 votes against the Report, with no votes for it.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was absent at the time of voting. Ironically, Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Mustapha who presented the Delimitation Committee Report to Parliament also voted against it.

The Delimitation Committee comprised of Kanagaratnam Thavalingam, retired Surveyor General, Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike, retired Assistant Governor of the Central Bank, Professor S.H. Hisbullah, Prof. Sangara Wijeyasandiran and retired Assistant Election Commissioner Premathilaka Siriwardena. Unfortunately, Prof. Hisbullah passed away following a sudden ailment soon after the report was defeated in Parliament.

Effectively, the defeat of the Report means that provincial council elections are almost certain to be delayed further, even though party leaders in Parliament had in late July arrived at a decision to conduct the polls on January 5, 2019.

Provincial Council elections

Elections to three provincial councils in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and the East are now overdue. Polls will soon be due in the Central, North Western and Northern Provinces. By March next year, elections will also be due in the Western and Southern Provinces while polls should be called in the Uva Province by September 2019.

The Delimitation Committee Report was necessary because the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act No. 17 of 2017 was enacted in Parliament in September last year and was signed in to law by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya a few days after it was approved by Parliament. This Act calls for a major overhaul of the electoral system.

The proposed new system, which has now been legislated for, envisages a hybrid between the proportional representation (PR) system and the Westminster style first past the post system which allows for representation for specific electoral areas. Presently, elections to local government institutions are held under this mixed system.

Although Parliament approved this system for provincial councils as well when it enacted the new legislation last September, political parties are now wary of it after their experiences at the local council elections held in February this year. Hence the frantic moves to revert to the PR system.

The UNP, TNA and the JO are all advocating a return to the PR system as are minority parties. The latter in particular increased their representation through the PR system over the past three decades and are now loath to revert to a system which will undoubtedly reduce their chances of having members in local and provincial councils.

However, the biggest stumbling block to reaching a resolution is the lack of a consensus among political parties as to which system serves the country best, with all parties naturally attempting to safeguard their own interests. The polls are further hamstrung by the fact that Parliament, having already approved a hybrid system, requires a two-third majority to make changes to that system, a majority that would be difficult to obtain if one major political party refuses to co-operate.

Hence the likelihood of further delays in the conduct of provincial polls. In the latest move to break the deadlock, a five-member committee, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on Tuesday to review the Delimitation Committee Report and suggest recommendations. The other members of this committee are R.M.A.L. Ratnayake, Periyasamy Muthulingam, Professor P. Balasundarampillai and Dr. A.S.M. Naufal.

However, it is unlikely that this committee could meet, make recommendations, have them approved by a two-thirds majority in Parliament for elections to be conducted by January 2019. Given the tasks that need to be completed prior to that, this would be an optimistic timeline.

Despite all parties rejecting the Delimitation Committee Report, different parties attribute different reasons for their decision. The JO, for instance, states that the hybrid system does not reflect the aspirations of the public. Although voting against the Report and effectively contributing to the delay in conducting provincial council elections, the JO is also accusing the government of deliberately dragging their feet to delay the polls.

Buoyed by its first outing as a political entity in the form of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which swept the board at the local government polls in February, the JO feels it can capitalise on provincial council elections, if they are held. With presidential and general elections due in 2020, the JO feels that provincial polls in 2019 would be the ideal springboard to generate a political advantage.

Presidential elections 2020

It is precisely the same concern that is worrying the UNP and the SLFP, the latter in particular as it came a distant third in the local government elections. Both parties are now working overtime to get their grassroots party networks and election machineries in to top gear and are mapping out various development programmes at the electorate level. They are therefore not as keen to test the political waters before their efforts bear fruit, knowing that a negative outcome could have a snowballing effect on national elections.

It has also been pointed out that presidential elections, though due in 2020, could also be held in 2019 if President Maithripala Sirisena was inclined to do so. It is now all but a certainty that President Sirisena will run again for President- although he is yet to announce this formally - and being the incumbent, he does have the advantage of calling the election at a time that would give him the best prospects.

This is all the more relevant due to the confusion in the ranks of the JO. For several months now, it was assumed that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the frontrunner to be the JO candidate although there were rumblings of dissent from within the JO camp itself at this prospect. Besides, Rajapaksa has to renounce his United States citizenship which he is yet to do.

Now, in an about turn, the JO is suddenly seeking to clarify whether former President Mahinda Rajapaksa could be a candidate for a third time. This is a process that is time consuming, requiring legal action that needs to be then referred to the Supreme Court for that court to make a determination.

In such circumstances where the time factor is of the essence, calling an early presidential election while the JO is still trying to get its act together, would confer an inherent advantage to other major parties. It is unlikely that this would have escaped the attention of strategists in the mainstream SLFP who want President Sirisena to stand for President again.

If the prospect of a ‘snap’ presidential election emerges, provincial council election would of course take a back seat. This, and the fact that the major political parties are still squabbling over which system suits the provinces best, must mean that the next provincial council polls are many months away.


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