Local government polls, the lowest level election contested by political parties in this country usually attract scant attention except in the major cities where prestigious mayoralties are at stake. This year though, these elections have taken on a larger than life significance mostly because of political events that are unfolding in the post-January 8 scenario.
Having had presidential and general elections in 2015, Sri Lanka is not due for a major national election at least until 2019, the earliest date the current Parliament can be dissolved under the terms of the Constitution. As such, Local Government elections, though not an efficient barometer of the political climate in the country, remains the only avenue available for the respective parties to test their strength vis-à-vis one another.
This becomes especially significant in the current context where the two factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa are jostling for control of the vast reservoir of grassroots level votes the party commands.
It will be remembered that a similar situation existed in the run up to the general election last year. Relatively fresh from his defeat at the presidential election, Rajapaksa saw the general election as an opportunity to return to Parliament and enjoy at least a fraction of the power he once enjoyed. Egged on by the smaller parties of the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA), he staked his claim in the Kurunegala district.
Rajapaksa returned to Parliament but the SLFP had lost and in any event, President Sirisena had made it abundantly clear that Rajapaksa would not be appointed Prime Minister even if the party won. Rajapaksa had to be content with being a mere parliamentarian. Facing increasing isolation in the SLFP as his previously loyal ministers rose to the bait of accepting Cabinet portfolios in the 'national unity' government headed by the President, Rajapaksa had to look for a 'Plan B': forming a separate political party for the purpose of contesting Local Government elections.
To his credit, Rajapaksa has kept fighting and has been able to retain the support of a 'hard core' group of parliamentarians. He must also believe that if he can demonstrate significant support for himself at Local Government elections, there will be a group who would switch allegiances once again to his camp, even before he asks them to do so. Such is the fickle nature of Sri Lankan politics.
A week ago, the formation of a new party where Rajapaksa would be the spiritual, if not actual, leader seemed imminent. Eagerly sought out by journalists for his 'voice cuts' whenever he leaves a court house, commission of inquiry or a temple, Rajapaksa repeatedly noted that, because the SLFP was part and parcel of the United National Party (UNP) led government and also because there was no 'real' opposition from either the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the masses were crying out for a opposition worthy of its title. Hence there was a great need for another political force, Rajapaksa opined.
Local Government election
Being the seasoned politician that he is, Rajapaksa however realises that such a political entity needs a catalyst such as the Local Government election to propel itself to the electorate. Those who recall the events of over two decades ago will remember the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) which broke away from the mainstream UNP thrust itself into limelight using the provincial council elections. The Rajapaksa camp was hoping for a similar sequence of events.
It is not Rajapaksa alone who has realised this; advisors to the President have already cautioned him that the polls may provide the Rajapaksa faction with the much needed momentum to make its mark on the political landscape. Since then, there were mixed messages emanating from the government camp.
The minister who is purportedly in charge of the subject, Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, Faiszer Mustapha has been repeatedly stating that every effort is being made to conduct the elections as soon as possible and that there was no intention of postponing the polls.
On the other hand, State Minister of Finance Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena is on record stating that the elections cannot be held as originally scheduled. Of course, the minister claims that this is because delimitation of the local councils is not yet complete and would in fact take several months more.
As a result, elections which were earlier slated to be held by March this year and then tentatively projected for soon after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year are now being tentatively earmarked for later in the year. Some forecasts estimate that the elections will not be held at all this year and may in fact be scheduled for early 2017!
The reluctance of the mainstream SLFP hierarchy to conduct the election as soon as possible is understandable. It controls almost all of the councils in the South of the country barring a few local government bodies in urban areas. With a UNP-led government in power, it will not be able to match that feat and President Sirisena can then be conveniently criticised by the Rajapaksa camp for being responsible for the diminished performance of the SLFP. If the Rajapaksa camp does campaign separately, it will be a bitter tussle between the two factions to avoid being relegated to third place, with the UNP almost guaranteed of being the winner.
However, with no election looming, Rajapaksa has had to adjust his strategy. He is still engaged in his campaign of wooing the masses at various events, some of them sponsored by dissident SLFP local councillors who are daring the party leadership to crack down on them. He is also singing a slightly different tune now. "Many are trying to chase me away from the SLFP and that will not be easy", he says.
Differences of opinion
Strategically, that makes perfect sense. Since it is a Local Government election and not a parliamentary poll that is being contemplated, there is no necessity for Rajapaksa to contest or be directly involved in the new political venture because, even if he is not, the new party will always look upon him as their de facto leader.
Besides, there are two other Rajapaksas waiting in the wings who could don that mantle: Basil and Gotabhaya. If they are at the helm, the former President can watch from the side-lines as the 'Rajapaksa' brand name will be able to carry the new party with it.
This is where some differences of opinion have emerged. Basil Rajapaksa was to Mahinda Rajapaksa what Felix Dias Bandaranaike was to Sirima Bandaranaike: the kinsman and the all-powerful minister who ran the political machine of the party. Basil is relatively junior in the party hierarchy and his influence on political decisions was the cause of much resentment among the Old Guard of the SLFP. There were also fears that he would become the heir apparent, by-passing more loyal and faithful servants of the party. All these concerns are bound to resurface if Basil Rajapaksa is to lead the new political party.
There are different concerns about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's leadership prospects. He carries no political baggage, not directly being involved in politics until now. His track record as Defence Secretary and the man who masterminded the beautification of Colombo is exemplary. However, he is known as a straight talking military man, much in the mould of Sarath Fonseka and there are concerns that this perceived lack of tact would not serve him well if he were to become the leader of a major political party- just as much as it had disastrous consequences for Fonseka.
Thus, the local government elections are in limbo at least for now. Theoretically at least, that may be due to delays in delimitation but that has provided rival factions in the SLFP with time to retreat and regroup. The UNP meanwhile, is waiting in the wings hoping the polls would be sooner rather than later, because it must know that the goodwill an incumbent government enjoys also has an expiry date.