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Sri Lanka: PUCSL down; EC in crosshairs; Opposition must take the bull by the horns

“No government will dare create such a situation and aggravate the woes of the people, who are already resentful to the point of taking to the streets, if it really intends to hold an election in a few weeks.”

The government has succeeded in manipulating the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) and having a 66% increase in electricity tariff approved amidst widespread protests. It had some PUCSL members loyal to it override their Chairman Janaka Ratnayake’s decision to disallow power price hikes. Two PUCSL members resigned recently, enabling the government to make new appointments, and muster the required numbers to bend the Commission to its will. The government has adopted the same modus operandi to tame the Election Commission (EC) as well but without success.

One EC member has already resigned. Three other commissioners have been threatened with death to resign so that some pliable characters ready to do the government’s bidding can be appointed. The fact that the police are dragging their feet on investigations into the EC members’ complaints of death threats is proof of the involvement of a pro-government group in the incidents at issue. If anyone without links to the government had issued threats to the EC members, the long arm of the law would have swooped on him in next to no time. The three EC members concerned have, to their credit, refused to step down, despite threats, thus foiling the government’s plan to appoint some stooges to the commission, and postpone the scheduled LG polls. So far so good. The government is not likely to give up easily. It knows more than one way to shoe a horse.

The SLPP-UNP regime made no bones about its plans to railroad the PUCSL into rubber-stamping its decision to raise power tariffs, but it wants to delay the mini polls without being seen to be doing so; it knows that there is the possibility of its efforts to disrupt the elections coming a cropper, and in such an eventuality, its abortive attempts, if made openly, will be seen as an admission of defeat ahead of the scheduled electoral contest. They have put their plan B into action while pretending to be getting ready for the mini polls; they are having some public officials such as the Secretary to the Finance Ministry and the Government Printer do their dirty work. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has directed all public officials to adopt zero-based budgeting method so that no balances can be carried forward and no expenses pre-committed.

The government has so far chosen to act with some restraint in dealing with the EC, but a dead man walking is capable of anything, and if push comes to shove the SLPP-UNP combine will not hesitate to go to any extent to prevent an electoral setback, which will reveal that it no longer enjoys public trust and therefore lacks legitimacy to be in power. Nothing is more worrisome for a beleaguered regime than to lose a midterm election and become a lame duck.

The latest round of power tariff hikes is bound to push the general price level up again with the costs of all essential goods and services going through the roof. No government will dare create such a situation and aggravate the woes of the people, who are already resentful to the point of taking to the streets, if it really intends to hold an election in a few weeks.

Having trampled the PUCSL and jacked up power prices, the government is likely to turn on the EC. The UNP has a history of having the houses of Supreme Court judges stoned, sacking tens of thousands of workers to crush strikes, beating, torturing and killing countless Opposition activists to suppress dissent, manipulating public institutions to further its interests, and hounding out upright public officials. The SLPP is no better. Its leaders have sacked a Chief Justice, interfered with the judiciary, reduced the public service to mere putty in their hands, made the Attorney General’s Department an appendage of the government, had its political opponents attacked and killed, and turned public officials into their lackeys. Today, the two parties have come together to protect their own interests. Their joint administration is like an alliance between Deimos and Phobos or ‘Mahasona’ and ‘Riri Yaka’. Needless to say, democracy is in great peril, and has to be defended with might and main lest the Sri Lankan version of the Third Reich should become a reality in the not-too-distant future. The Opposition must stop bellowing rhetoric and take the bull by the horns.

Editorial, The Island.17.02.23

 

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