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Listen to the people


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Elections are litmus tests for governments, which is why they are periodically held in the middle of ruling terms. This can pose a massive challenge for the incumbent government because they have to remain popular even when attempting to implement painful reforms. But once the votes have been counted if they do not deliver the expected result that is when the people need to be listened to the most. 

Local Government elections that wrapped up over the weekend brought some sobering news for the Coalition Government made up of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena and United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The three-way battle between the SLFP, UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was inflated into a national election, despite those elected ostensibly being appointed to local governments. All three key personalities approached the elections as though they were a national battle and in the end the public saw it in the same light. 

After many hours of vote-counting the final result saw SLPP bagging about 45% of the vote but the UNP and United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) combined still edged ahead in the tally. Nonetheless, the SLPP made significant inroads into key wards in the south, eating away at chunks of the traditional UNP and SLFP vote bases. However, they are unlikely to poll 51% or more of the vote, which would give them a clear majority and even in some wards that they have won the party would have to consider forming coalitions in order to govern. Having approached the Local Government elections as a national one, all parties are now seeking a way forward to consolidate their power at the national level.  

The political permutations of this result will reverberate for weeks to come. The SLPP, having gained a toehold, will now shout from the rooftops and play up their win as much as possible. This is the nature of politics and to be expected. Their supporters will do the same. But the crucial power centres to watch in the days ahead will be President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and whether this result will change the balance of power within Parliament. Both have to make critical decisions given that presidential and parliamentary elections are inching closer in 2020 but are likely to continue working together in the short term. 

What is now of critical importance is what can be done in the remaining time to push forward the mandate and the pledges that were made by President Sirisena during his 2014 campaign. Many opinions have been put forth as to why the people voted the way they did and much of it has to do with the perception that the good governance promised by the coalition has failed to be delivered in a way that means something to average people. 

Once the stock-taking is over, both the UNP and the SLFP have to move forward and do more than damage control. They have to genuinely work towards cleaning out their own parties, improving transparency, strengthening institutions and paying attention to the genuine needs of the people. The result on Sunday, as well as the 2015 polls, clearly show the public are in no mood to tolerate representatives who do not walk the talk and anyone can be sent home.     

    

 


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