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Sri Lanka: Danger of postponing LG election and its far reaching repercussions

Image: Lamp was the symbol of the campaign against the postponing elections in 1982.

The Election Commission (EC) has stopped dilly-dallying and announced that nominations for the much-delayed Local Government (LG) elections will be accepted from 18 to 21 Jan., 2023. This is certainly good news. Some Opposition politicians are in seventh heaven. They brag that they have been able to put paid to the government’s efforts to postpone the polls. But it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. There is said to be many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. The government is scared of elections, and will do everything in its power to postpone the LG polls, and how it will seek to achieve that goal remains to be seen.

There is no way the government can bring in a new law to postpone elections because such legislation affects people’s franchise and will have to be ratified by Parliament with a special majority and endorsed by the public at a referendum. But it can seek to change the existing laws to compass that end, the way it did in 2017, when it amended the Provincial Council Elections Act to put off the PC polls indefinitely. Speculation is also rife in political circles that the government has surreptitiously prepared the ground for submitting a Bill, seeking to prevent fund allocations for elections during the current crisis, on the pretext of rationalising its expenditure.

If the government succeeds in manipulating the parliamentary process to delay the LG polls further, the Opposition’s complaint that the EC has dragged its feet, giving the SLPP-UNP combine ample time to devise a plan to put off elections will be vindicated.

It will be a huge mistake for the government to postpone the LG polls again because such action will be tantamount to an admission of defeat to all intents and purposes.

The need for an election at this juncture would not have arisen if the SLPP had cared to form an all-party interim government with a time frame set for an early general election. Instead, it chose to retain its hold on power by electing Ranil Wickremesinghe the President and having him look after its interests. As SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has said, it is his party that is running the country because it has had President Wickremesinghe elected and controls Parliament. Corruption is rampant and power continues to be abused. The government does not give a tinker’s cuss about public opinion. The only way to knock some sense into its members is to subject them to an electoral shock. Hence the need for an election!

Elections are safety valves that help defuse tensions in the polity and thereby prevent political upheavals. Election postponements always entail disastrous consequences, as is our experience. In 1975, the SLFP-led United Front government postponed a general election by two years and became even more unpopular. The UNP obtained a five-sixths majority in 1977, as a result, and abused it in every conceivable manner. The J. R. Jayewardene government replaced the 1982 general election with a heavily-rigged referendum, and paved the way for the second JVP uprising. Had that election been held, people would have been able to give vent to their pent-up anger democratically; they would have simmered down, and perhaps, the JVP would have been able to secure parliamentary representation instead of taking up arms and plunging the country into a bloodbath.

If the incumbent government denies the people an opportunity to exercise their franchise, it will invite trouble; public resentment is rocket fuel that propels the masses into taking to the streets and adopting extra-parliamentary measures to engineer regime changes. A poll postponement will invariably create conditions for mass protests, which are bound to be far worse than the ones that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Let those who have allegedly undertaken to manipulate the parliamentary process to postpone the LG polls be warned that they will be held to account if violent protests grip the country and ruthless crackdowns thereon lead to bloodshed.

Editorial, The Island,Thursday 5th January, 2023


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