While there is pressure on Sri Lanka from India and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to hold the long-delayed Provincial Council (PC) elections, there are a number political factors preventing the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government from holding the polls in the foreseeable future.
Government ministers have said that the polls could be held at the end of 2021. But that seems more and more unlikely with every passing day.
Firstly, the delimitation of constituencies for holding elections under the First Past the Post System remains a highly contested issue. The Delimitation Commission’s report had been defeated in parliament in 2018 and it is unlikely that another report will have safe passage. The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is itself divided on its recommendations.
Of course, Parliament can resolve to use the existing district-wise Proportional Representation System and hold the polls. But for this, there ought to be a will to hold the elections. The fact is, there is no will.
Centralizing and majoritarian forces led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and top Buddhist monks, do not want Provincial Councils as they see them as being antithetical to national unity and a singularity of national purpose. The conduct of the erstwhile Northern Provincial Council under the stewardship of Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran did not help build confidence in devolution of power. The Council was mostly passing resolutions on human rights violations and the need for internal self-determination for the Tamils. Precious little was done to formulate and implement development plans. The Council and its ministers were compulsively antagonistic to Colombo.
On Thursday, uniforms belonging to the newly-established environment police unit of the Jaffna Municipal Council, were seen as being similar to the LTTE police uniform. The police have arrested Jaffna Mayor Mannivannan in this connection. In the Eastern Province two young Muslims were arrested allegedly for spreading Jehadist ideas though classes for high school students.
In an open letter to the President and the Prime Minister, 14 leading Buddhist monks urged them not to conduct PC elections saying that it would be “treacherous” to do so. They asked the government to give the country a new constitution as promised in the election manifesto. The monks and majoritarian politicians hope that government will use its two thirds majority in parliament to foist a centralized constitution entirely devoid of devolution to the provinces and with no trace of the India-foisted 13 th.,Constitutional Amendment.
The monks said: “Although the country had seen success in ending a war that terrorized the country after the sacrifice of the lives of many patriotic soldiers, we were not able to live in peace for a long time. The people of this country have become the target of other acts of terrorism along with the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019. The real perpetrators of this dastard terrorist attack that had its roots in the Eastern Province with the connivance of international Muslim terrorism are yet a mystery. The threats of bigoted leaders and the unearthing of bombs and weapons recently in the Northern Province is an indication that terrorist activities from among the Tamil population are not fully eradicated.”
“Hence, it is imperative that the country should bring into being a new constitution that firmly establishes the unitary status of Sri Lanka. The efforts of the present government to strengthen the Provincial Council system that has been forcefully and arbitrarily shoved on the people of this country, rather than bringing about a new Constitution that rectifies this situation, have resulted in much condemnation by the public.
‘Making preparations to hold Provincial Council elections in haste, similar to the passing of the 20th amendment to the Constitution, seems to be a hint that the promise placed before the people of the country to have a new constitution is only a facade.”
“The recent UNHCR resolution passed in Geneva reveals the shameless attempts of the Western interests to annul the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In this regard it is sad to note that there are sections within the Government, the opposition and the NGO sector, that are hand in glove with various groups who are hell-bent on destroying our country.”
“The short-sighted cabinet decision to hold elections for Provincial Councils before getting the recommendations of the Committee appointed by this same Government in regard to a new Constitution should be considered as a golden opportunity lost to rectify a wrong that is hindering the future path of progress of this country.”
“If the Provincial Council elections are held as announced, the government will be legally bound to implement in full the 13th Amendment. According to the provisions of the 13th Amendment, Provincial Councils are allowed to establish Provincial Police Forces and hold firearms, ammunition and other equipment. Going by the past record, it is not difficult to predict how Chief Ministers will govern the provinces. Such behaviur was clearly evident from the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Vigneswaran during his tenure as CM. Injustices were meted out to the Buddhists and Buddhist religious places purely driven by communal considerations.”
“If two such Chief Ministers were to be elected, the establishment of a Provincial Council system according to the wishes of the people will become just a pipe dream. It appears that the hasty decision taken by the government is for the sole purpose of obstructing and making it impossible to abolish the current Provincial Council system. It is apparent that the present move of the government is to satisfy requirements or conditions of external elements. We do not want a government that is guided and dictated by foreign governments and agencies,” the monks said in their missive.
In the Lankan contest, the monks’ letter will be enough reason not to hold the elections now or even later. Government can keep on postponing the PC elections citing difficulties in formulating a constitution which is capable of getting two thirds majority in parliament and 50% plus in the mandatory referendum. Constitution making has never been easy in Sri Lanka.
Postponing the PC elections will be in the interest of both the ruling SLPP, the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJP) and the United National Party (UNP). The SLPP has made a mess of governance by its impetuosity, lack of planning and internal consultation. Its passion for imposing bans has made life hard for the common man. Jobs lost during the pandemic have not been retrieved, but prices have soared. Tourism is languishing. There is confusion even in procuring COVID vaccines, with the result, people are wondering if they will get their mandatory second jabs at all.
If the polls are held now, victory cannot be assured as disillusionment is rampant in the urban areas at least. It is said that agriculturists have been well-served, but Sri Lankan families are only partly rural and agricultural. Urban pressures tell on the rural population also.
As far as the opposition SJB is concerned, it is leaderless and rudderless with a weak leader in Sajith Premadasa. The UNP has been reduced to a rump. But Mangala Samraweera is likely to give it a turbo boost if he continues in his current trajectory.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has deliberately chosen to be on the sidelines to watch the developments. UNP insiders say that he sees a window of opportunity for the UNP in the coming days as the SLPP falters. But as of now, the UNP has decided to wait and watch from the sidelines.