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Provincial polls and belling the cat

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Sri Lanka is in the unenviable situation where the majority want elections but the legal system for holding the needed polls is still in flux. Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya described this dilemma as “belling the cat” and called on political party leaders and politicians to get together and find a way forward, warning that even once the legal problems have been resolved, it would take at least 10 weeks for the vote to be held. 

The delayed Provincial Council elections have been in the news for nearly three years. The elections are already overdue for the North-Western, Central, North-Central, Northern, Eastern and the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils. All political parties insist that elections need to be held but whether it will be under the old proportional representative system or the mixed system is still under debate. 

When the Delimination Committee report was presented to Parliament last August, it was not approved. This resulted in the appointment of a four-member committee which was asked to look into the matter of the Delimination Committee report and make relevant representations to {arliament. Subsequently the events of 26 October eclipsed concerns over elections and the matter only resurfaced in the New Year. 

So far the United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance and the Janath Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have supported holding Provincial Council elections as soon as possible. Only the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has expressed reservations about holding the provincial polls under the old system. Yet President Maithripala Sirisena continues to make statements blaming external parties for attempting to delay elections without being clear about what the issues are and spearheading a way to map forward a solution to the existing issues. 

Party leaders have to come together to establish an electoral system that works. Even though the current deadlock has no impact on holding Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the existence of Provincial Councils cannot be ignored indefinitely.

It is important to understand that elections are an essential part of a democracy. A country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair. Critical development efforts cannot succeed without a legitimate and democratically-elected government, even at the provincial level, that is responsive and accountable to its citizens. 

Sri Lankans, especially, have traditionally resented having their franchise delayed, and at times have expressed their discontent by increasing their support for the Opposition. The Local Government elections also came under much criticism for the delay, and the Government would better serve its people by finding a way to engage more actively, consistently and comprehensively to resolve outstanding matters on the Provincial Council elections and work to hold them at the earliest possible opportunity. 

The Provincial Councils also hold much responsibility in running education, healthcare and other services in the country, and cannot be allowed to become defunct as they would hamper the public. Politics, it has been said, is the art of the possible and therefore, as many of the political parties as possible have to find a convergence point to ensure that the people can use their franchise in a timely manner.

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