Home > 2018 > Sri Lanka Local Bodies’ Elections

Mainstream, VOL LVI No 8 New Delhi February 10, 2018

Sri Lanka Local Bodies’ Elections

Tuesday 13 February 2018

by Gautam Sen

A total of 15.8 million Sri Lankans will vote in the country’s third tier elections on February 10, 2018 to chose 8293 members to 341 local bodies, namely, 24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 276 pradeshiya sabhas or divisional councils. These elections would be within the provisions of Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Act-21 of 2012 and Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act-22 of 2012. A mixed electoral system will be followed wherein, 60 per cent of the members will be elected on the ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system, while the remaining 40 per cent will be on proportional representation as per the total votes received by the contesting political parties, from the lists of candidates put up by them. The significance of the elections lie in the fact that, it will a major test of grass-root support of the political parties and their candidates before the President Maithripala Sirisena demits office in 2020, political durability of the Sirisena-Ranil Wikremasinghe-UNP combination, apart from the efficacy of the mixed electoral system instituted in 2012 and subsequent delimitation of the local bodies’ constituencies to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

Sri Lanka’s political milieu has of late, become very contentious after a huge financial scandal popularly known as the ‘bond scandal’ broke out. The scandal involves manipulation in the auction of government treasury bonds by insider leakage of confidential information, leading to a loss of Lankan Rupees 11145 million (US dollar equivalent 72.44 million) to the government exchequer in 2015. This occurred after Sirisena, leader of a faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), assumed the presidency, and Ranil Wikremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) became the Prime Minister in a political co-habitation process. The scandal involves Arjuna Mahendran, former Governor of the country’s Central bank, hand-picked by Prime Minister Wikremasinghe, one of Mahendran‘s relatives and a firm alleged to be associated with him, which bought 50 per cent of the bonds.

While former President Mahinda Rajapakshe and his faction of the SLFP are trying to derive political capital from the scandal by attributing it to political manipulation and administrative failure of the Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe duo‘s governance, Sirisena has adopted a public stance conveying his determination to completely recover the loss to the state. The scandal has become a major political issue among Sirisena, the Prime Minister and his UNP and joint front of Sri Lanka’s Opposition parties including the Left-wing Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP). The inquiry report of a presidential commission on the scandal has been finalised. However, its contents are alleged to have not been fully revealed, thereby constricting debate in parliament. The outcome of the local body elections is expected to be influenced by the fallout of the scandal.

An interesting aspect of the local bodies’ elections is that the UNP and SLFP are contesting separately. The allegiance of the SLFP candidates is split between Sirisena and Rajapakshe. The JVP is also a factor in the contest, though on a limited scale, notwithstanding their fielding of some socio-politically active persons including a doctor-turned-social activist having a winning potential, as their mayoral candidate for Colombo municipality. A grandson of former UNP leader and President, Junius Jayewardene, is a candidate for councillorship from the SLFP in Colombo. The outcome of the elections cannot be realistically predicted on party lines. In such an environment, the individual credibility of Sirisena and those in support of the President, is expected to be indirectly tested through these elections. It is therefore significant that Sirisena has adopted a combative posture, indicating that he will recover the loss caused by the under-priced bond auction, and has started highlighting unaccounted foreign loans worth $ 1 trillion, large siphoning off of loan content, sale of government enterprises without Cabinet approval and domestic sale of imported commodities at 300 per cent profit during the past three years and earlier. These allegations, though intended to project his high moral ground, cannot but affect his Prime Minister and the UNP and increase tension within the ruling combine, as some of the occurrences were when Wickremesinghe was the Premier.

The local bodies‘ elections will also be a test for the dualism instituted in the electoral process that is, 60 per cent candidates elected on FPTP system and the remaining 40 per cent on the basis of popular votes secured by the contesting parties from the lists put up by the latter. When allegiance of the candidates to their political parties may not be fully committed, the candidates declared elected from the lists projected by the political parties, may defect post-elections and pose problems in governance of the respective local bodies. A demand of some parties for an enabling provision in the electoral system to replace their listed candidates by independent candidates under certain circum-stances, is indicative of some uncertainty in the functioning of a party and list-based local body electoral process. Such a demand has, however, been turned down by Sri Lanka‘s election commission.

Other issues like state of law and order, human rights conditions, public welfare, employment scenario, etc. are also expected to influence the forthcoming elections. President Sirisena has claimed credit for restoration of civil rights, enacting the Right to Information Act — 2016, setting in motion a constitutional reform process by appointing a Constitutional Council towards instituting a revamped political structure, further devolution of powers from the national government level, and setting up a national human rights commission, etc. However, unaccounted police excesses have been occurring including a very recent incident at Kataragama in Uva province, leading to public agitation. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in the statute books. There is also no consensus on the constitutional reforms needed. Human rights issues across the country, and particularly in the north and east, are still to be satisfactorily resolved. Sirisena’s Prime Minister has defended the re-negotiated deal with two Chinese special-purpose vehicles set up by the China Merchants Port Holding Company in Hambantota and its port, inter-alia, indicating prospects of a high trade turnover through the port, and generation of productive jobs in the near future. However, local grievances at Hambantota on land acquisition, impact on environment and doling out economic favours to the local populace selectively, are simmering. These developments or lack of progress in achieving final outcomes considered satisfactory for their livelihood by the local people, will in all probability impact the local bodies’ elections.

More than the SLFP, its factions and the UNP, it appears that the result of the local bodies’ elections will impinge on the future political standing of Sirisena. This is because, for good or bad, the present state of economic livelihood of the people and civic conditions, perceptions on government institutions’ responsiveness to public grievances and past injustices, have come to be linked with the Sirisena presidency and his ability to deliver. For both India, a major neighbour and a politico-economic partner like China, in the medium-term perspective, the continuance of President Sirisena and his unity government of the UNP and pro-Sirisena faction, may be the most expedient and least turbulent option till the next presidential election in 2020. Premier Wikremasinghe is on record to have bravely stated that the present alliance will endure till 2020 and may even continue beyond till 2025. The outcome of the local bodies’ polls will be a determinant in this respect.

The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments with the Government of India and also in Sri Lanka. The views expressed are the author’s own.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)