President Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to be of the view that he and the people of this country are on the same wavelength about elections, given the speech he made at the ‘2023/2024 National Law Conference’ held at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya on June 3. He said that the majority of the population, including the youth lacked trust in elections and politics.
Using executive powers
At a time when elections are postponed using executive powers and other political expressions such as protests are suppressed, any one would be at a loss to know how the President gauged the level of people’s faith in elections and politics. It was only last year that millions of people took to the streets making an unprecedented thrust on the President of the day to ‘go home’ and filled the streets until their agitations were brutally cracked down by the armed forces.
People have spoken
Those countrywide protests were the best indication to show how people were interested in and had faith in politics. Thousands of youth belonging to all racial and religious communities camped in the Galle Face Green and in front of the Temple Trees for months.
“Elections are a vital mechanism that puts democracy in practice. The frequency of elections is determined by the law and not by the enthusiasm of the people or wishes of the leaders of the government”
In fact, that was a rare indication of people having politically reacted for the first time to their realization that politics and politicians of this country have destroyed their lives and dreams and those of their children. Until then majority of people had tended to justify all actions by the party they preferred over the others. Breaking that self-harming tradition and showing the maximum interest in politics they rebelled last year against the very party they voted into power two and a half years ago.
Fear of crackdown
The Current lull in political activities is not a voluntary choice of the people, but an outcome of the fear of crackdown. Had the local government elections been held on March 9 this year as scheduled, people would have showcased how much they have faith in elections and one could argue that in fact that was what prompted the President and the government led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna to scuttle the local government election process.
Going by the government’s recent questionable measures in respect of local government elections that were in fact had to be held in February last year, it would be clear that it was the government leaders who have lost trust in elections and not
It is the Government
Going by the government’s recent questionable measures in respect of local government elections that were in fact had to be held in February last year, it would be clear that it was the government leaders who have lost trust in elections and not the people.
The term of 340 local government bodies that was to end in February last year was extended on January 9 in the same year until March 19 this year. The elections for those local councils had to be held before March 19, but their possible postponement was first indicated through a statement by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 9 last year. He stated during a meeting at his office that action would be taken to reduce the number of members of LG bodies from 8000 to 4000. The Opposition immediately got wind of the motive of the statement and accused that the government was attempting to put off local council elections.
One failed attempt
Yet, the government went ahead with its plan with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena who is also the Local Government Minister appointing a delimitation committee in the first week of November, under the chairmanship of Mahinda Deshapriya, the current Chairman of the National Delimitation Commission.
When that plan failed leaders of the government decided to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in December last year to recommend amendments to the Local Government Elections Act, including downsizing the LG bodies. Interestingly, a PSC had been appointed to recommend electoral reforms in May 2021 under the chairmanship of none other than Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena who was then only a minister. He had presented its report to the Parliament on June 22 last year.
Meanwhile, a retired Army Colonel, W.M.R.Wijesundera filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on January 2 against the move by the EC to hold elections. Opposition parties were of the opinion that this was in fact a move by the ruling party. Yet, the EC on January 4 announced that the nominations for the polls would be accepted from January 18 to 21.
Summoning EC by President
Nevertheless, President Wickremesinghe on January 6 summoned the members of the EC to the Presidential Secretariat where he asked them to resolve the differences among them on holding the election. And despite the EC chief Nimal Punchihewa having denied his suggestion about differences of opinions within the EC, the President on February 23 told Parliament that the elections have not been announced legally. Interestingly, by the time his party the United National Party had also tendered nominations for the elections. Opposition parties decried the President summoning the EC as he is the leader of the UNP and described it as misuse of Presidential powers.
One more attempt
In the meantime, a private member’s Bill on the LG elections which provides for the inclusion of 25 percent of youth members in local government bodies was presented by SLPP member Premnath C.Dolawatte. The Bill had been presented while another private member’s Bill by Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) member Imthiaz Bakeer Markar for the same purpose had been handed over six months ago. The Opposition accused again that government’s motive was to postpone the election using the new Bill.
Besides, the government had opted to openly clash with the EC and the Secretary to Ministry of Public Administration, Neil Bandara Hapuhinna had sent a letter to the Returning Officers on January 9 instructing them to stop accepting deposits from the candidates contesting the LG elections, until further notice. However, on the same day he had withdrawn the letter. Media reported that Hapuhinna had sent this letter in accordance with a decision by the Cabinet.
Not deterred by all these failures, the government used another piece of legislation to make things difficult for the elections that have already been announced. This time, it took up a Bill (The Regulations of Election Expenditure Bill) meant for controlling the election expenses by candidates for debate in Parliament, ignoring the protests by the Opposition parties that cited the inappropriateness of the move at a time an election had been declared. Finally, the government won the day, by refusing to provide funds for the election and the matter is now before the Supreme Court.
This series of event vividly points to the fact that it is not the people but the government that has lost faith in elections. The large crowds that attended the meetings of the National People’s Power (NPP) or the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB) and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) that were held as a part of their local government election campaign recently showed the high enthusiasm people had in elections and politics.
On the other hand, elections are a vital mechanism that puts democracy in practice. The frequency of elections is determined by the law and not by the enthusiasm of the people or wishes of the leaders of the government.