Polls a necessary evil?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Early last year if one thought the country was done with the curse of elections in 2010, then there was more disappointment to come. Sri Lanka entered a new decade with the news that there will be mini elections for local governments in March 2011. Whether it is for World Cup Cricket or for strategic political reasons, local government elections will be held in two phases.

That was the plan until a few weeks ago. The country’s status quo has changed since then, after over one million people were affected by the flashfloods, especially in three provinces – Eastern, North Central and Central Province. Despite this, the indications are that preparations to conduct the polls are on schedule.

On Monday the Elections Department, following a meeting with District Returning Officers and Assistant Election Commissioners, decided that the deadline for nominations would not be extended. Accordingly, nominations for 308 Local Councils will be received from Thursday, 20 January, to 27 January. Additional Commissioner of Elections W.W. Sumanasiri has said there is no provision to postpone the elections or the nominations as the elections will be held within the specific period.

Whilst acceptance of nominations is unlikely to be a major distraction to the ordinary course of lives of most people, the issue is whether the people, especially those affected by the floods, are in a condition to be bombarded with political campaigns between now and March.

It is true that Sri Lanka for most of its contemporary history has been a shining democracy of electing people via the ballot and not the bullet, but within the course of one year we have had a presidential election, general election and now local government polls. The previous two elections alone cost Treasury coffers around Rs. 1 billion, whilst billions were spent by politicians in total for campaigns and vote buying.

At present there are 18 Municipal Councils, 42 Urban Councils and 270 Pradeshiya Sabhas in the country and all these councils will face elections, though in two phases, for the first time since the end of terrorism and the war in May 2009.

Given their reach to the interiors of Sri Lanka, elections to local bodies are likely to be volatile. With a reinvigorated Opposition, the contest this time around will be tough in a tense setting. The reason to postpone holding elections in some of the local bodies such as in Colombo, Hambantota and the Central Province is cited as the World Cup, however political analysts claim the move is largely on account of the not-so-favourable rating for the President Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

For the latter, what is plausible could be the rising cost of living as well as concerns over bad governance as alleged by the Opposition. However, Government camps remain confident and UPFA candidates will certainly trumpet yet again the heroic war victory, even though it has been two years since victory, and superimpose their campaigns with more of President Rajapaksa’s achievements than their individual brilliance.

Whilst for politicians and their parties holding elections at any cost may make sense, for the ordinary people, especially those marooned by the recent floods (Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera described the calamity as the worst since the December 2004 tsunami) and for those grappling with the rising cost of living and meagre income levels, polls will be a curse. Others, however, will hope for opportunity in adversity. This is because some local politicians are likely to be extraordinarily development and community-oriented in times of elections.

Nevertheless, at a time when a nationwide appeal has gone out for voluntary support by way of donation of essentials to the flood victims, millions will be spent on wasteful election expenditure and tamashas. A major food crisis is also looming; post-floods supplies have been disrupted and prices have risen.

When the 2011 Budget was presented in Parliament by President Rajapaksa who is also Finance Minister, there was renewed hope and confidence that the country would get down to serious economic and business development with zeal and interrupted focus. Now with local elections, floods, a looming food crisis and rising inflationary issues, key economic and development policy decisions and reforms are likely to take a backseat. Though time is running out and opportunities are being missed, the country wouldn’t mind a temporary deviation, provided it is for the better. That much, we are certain, is every Sri Lankan’s wish.