By advancing the PC polls ahead of the presidential election on a staggered basis, President Wickremesinghe hopes to reduce the pressure on him to conduct LG polls – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
The political animal that is Ranil is obviously perceiving some political advantages to himself in pursuing this staggered provincial poll proposal. Earlier he was determined to go in for a presidential election and ruled out the possibility of holding local government, provincial or parliamentary polls before that. Now he is apparently amenable to the idea of provincial council polls being held on a staggered basis. What seems to have caused this change?
Sri Lanka’s eighth executive president and United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has a remarkable capacity for generating innovative, out of the box ideas. His creative mind is an inexhaustible mine emitting a number of plans and proposals to cope with crises or surmount problems. The latest in this regard is President Wickremesinghe’s embryonic suggestion of conducting provincial council polls on a staggered basis prior to the holding of presidential elections.
Let me state at the outset that the proposal to conduct staggered provincial polls being contemplated by Wickremesinghe is in the evolutionary stages only. It is however learnt reliably that the president has been discussing this idea with some of his trusted political deputies as well as several political leaders of different hues. It is very likely that a final decision may be reached after a one on one pow-wow with former President and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Currently the political spotlight is focused on the question of local Government elections. Most political parties and civil society organisations are demanding elections to the local authorities in Sri Lanka that have been dissolved. The tenure of these municipal councils, urban councils and pradeshiya sabhas elected in 2018 ended after four years last year but were given a year extension.
However the provincial councils have remained dissolved for a longer period than the local authorities. The elected PCs ended their terms of office at different times in the years 2017, 2018 and 2019. No elections have been held so far and provincial administration is now in the hands of Governors appointed by the Executive President and not the democratically elected representatives of the people.
What is indeed puzzling and somewhat amusing is that the voices for democracy urging local authority polls maintain a deafening silence on the question of provincial polls. Even the Tamil parties who should stridently demand PC polls are content to pay mere lip service in a tokenist gesture.
What Ranil Wickremesinghe is contemplating at this point of time is to hold elections to the nine provincial councils in Sri Lanka on a staggered basis. Instead of holding elections to all nine PCs simultaneously, Ranil Wickremesinghe is toying with the idea of conducting piecemeal polls intermittently for one or two Provincial Councils at a time. He is thinking of beginning with the Northern Provincial Council first and then gradually proceed southwards geographically concluding with the Southern Provincial Council.
The political animal that is Ranil is obviously perceiving some political advantages to himself in pursuing this staggered provincial poll proposal. Earlier he was determined to go in for a presidential election and ruled out the possibility of holding local government, provincial or parliamentary polls before that. Now he is apparently amenable to the idea of provincial council polls being held on a staggered basis. What seems to have caused this change? In order to seek an appropriate answer, the current political situation needs to be delved into briefly.
Early Presidential Election
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political stock has risen greatly due to his commendable performance as President and Finance Minister of Sri Lanka. With the boost received through the IMF deal, Wickremesinghe began to set his sights on an early Presidential Election. The IMF package is only a lifeline that gives Lanka breathing space to resuscitate the economy. To achieve this, Wickremesinghe is firmly convinced that he needs to be in power for a few more years. It appears that only Ranil Wickremesinghe among frontline leaders has a clear idea of what must be done to salvage the economy in the short run and how to lay the economic foundation for future prosperity in the long run.
Furthermore, with more than 45 years of experience as a Parliamentarian, Ranil Wickremesinghe knows that the lack of a proper mandate is his Achilles’ Heel. His United National Party (UNP) was wiped out at the 2020 polls. Ranil himself entered Parliament as a national list MP. He was elected as President by an assortment of MPs from the Government and Opposition. The bulk of MPs supporting him were from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Independent opinion polls and analytical surveys show that the UNP and SLPP have negligible support in the country if an election is held now. The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake are the leading contenders for the electoral crown currently.
Hence Ranil Wickremesinghe is portrayed by his detractors as a ‘legally’ elected President lacking ‘legitimacy’. This perception has been invigorating the political opposition against Wickremesinghe and is somewhat undermining his credibility as President.
Also, Ranil realises that his securing a fresh firm mandate through elections will strengthen him politically and reinforce his economic reform task. Lending institutions and donor nations too would prefer to do business with a Government possessing a solid mandate. As such Ranil needs and wants a mandate sanctioning poll.
Why a Presidential Election?
Why is Ranil eyeing a Presidential Election?
There are four possible polls. Local Government (LG) Elections, Provincial Council (PC) Elections, Parliamentary Elections and a Presidential Election.
The chances of the UNP or a UNP-led coalition securing a sweeping victory at the LG or PC polls seem extremely remote. The Opposition parties, who are most likely to do well at these polls would use that victory to intensify demands for a Parliamentary Election. Also, a crushing defeat would undermine the President and his Government and draw glaring attention to the question of a lack of a legitimate mandate.
The same applies to Parliamentary Elections also. If elections are held soon, there is every chance that the SLPP will lose the slender majority it enjoys now. Since Opposition parties are unwilling to cooperate with President Wickremesinghe, he has been compelled to depend upon the SLPP to push bills through.
So, if elections result in the SLPP and allies losing badly, the President will not have a supportive majority in the House. The victorious SJB and JVP may exert the maximum possible pressure on the President. Besides, Ranil has already assured the SLPP MPs that he would not dissolve Parliament early.
Thus LG, PC and Parliament elections are ruled out from the President’s perspective. This leaves only the Presidential Election.
Wickremesinghe regards Presidential hustings as the best bet to gain a mandate. It is only as Executive President that he could authoritatively plan, coordinate, direct and execute his economic revival program best. A mandate obtained as President would strengthen and empower him politically.
Ranil perceives himself as a unique selling proposition in a Presidential election campaign. Given the stature and ability of his potential rivals, Wickremesinghe certainly towers above them. But then as Ranil knows very well, electoral success does not always favour the best and the brightest candidate. He is however confident of victory at the presidential husting this time.
Finally, there is the personal angle. The Presidency has for long eluded Ranil who has been branded a serial loser. As such he would very much like to be a President elected by the people before retiring from politics.
All signs, therefore, point to a Presidential election. If this scenario unfolds as stated, Wickremesinghe would contest with the backing of the UNP, minority parties and elements of the present SJB and SLPP.
Some UNP stalwarts and SLPP members have stated that an early Presidential Election is on the cards. The Constitution enables the incumbent President to call for an early Presidential election after completing four years in office if he intends to seek re-election for a second term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected in November 2019. Though he has resigned, his presidential term of office would complete four years in November 2023.
Wickremesinghe succeeded Rajapaksa for “the unexpired period of the term of office of the President vacating office.” Hence Ranil should be able to call for an early election any time after November 2023. But then the Constitution also states that this provision applies only to Presidents elected by the people at an election. It does not apply to Presidents unelected by the people. So Ranil cannot have an early presidential poll. That is the Constitutional position.
UNP sources however say that this could be altered by a Constitutional Amendment enabling the President to call for an early election. If the Opposition parties are really genuine about early elections, they should support the bill to garner a two-thirds majority. If they refuse, then the opposition parties will be exposed as insincere about polls, point out UNP circles.
If there is no amendment, President Wickremesinghe would continue as usual. Instead of early next year, the Presidential poll will be in the last quarter of 2024.
Change of plan
However there may be a change of plan according to informed sources. While Wickremesinghe is determined to go ahead with the presidential election, he may relent on the question of not having any other poll prior to that and will opt for a staggered provincial poll commencing with the Northern Province. Two reasons may be influencing Ranil’s thinking on this matter.
First is the tremendous pressure on him to conduct the local government elections. With the issue being taken up before the Supreme Court, a compromise is becoming very necessary. Second is the need to be in the good books of India. New Delhi has been consistently and constantly requesting Colombo to provide devolution through the provincial councils. Therefore having PC polls starting with the North, may help Indo-Lanka relations.
Local Government polls
The current Election Commission Chairman Nimal Punchihewa has been trying hard to conduct Local Government polls despite the Government saying it has no money. In such a situation one would have expected a prudent and non-partisan EC head to consult with the Government especially the Treasury about available finances before unilaterally announcing dates for LG polls. At one point of time, Punchihewa did state he would do so before fixing dates but some opposition parties insisted that there was no need for him to do so. The EC chairman acceded to opposition demands and continued on his confrontational course by announcing a new date. The Government was firm and did not give in to the EC. It is now clear that no LG elections will be held as announced.
President Wickremesinghe could have continued to maintain his “no election” position but for two reasons. Firstly the matter was taken up before the Supreme Court and there is every likelihood of parties concerned seeking further legal recourse again. The Supreme Court has been cautious in its earlier rulings. In one the SC cited the EC chairman’s statement that he could conduct elections and said there was no need to give a specific ruling. In the other the SC cited the prior allocation of funds by the Treasury to hold polls and said not to withhold such funds.
While the SC has been quite cautious in not pressuring the Government to hold LG polls within a definite timeframe, some Government MPs on the other hand seem to be taking up cudgels against the SC. The Parliamentary privileges issue has been raised and a select committee appointed. Such a confrontational course is unnecessary. Ranil Wickremesinghe who has completed 50 years at the bar and 49 years in active politics should and would realise that a conflict between the Judiciary and Legislature is unwarranted.
This may be one reason for his seeming flexibility over conducting polls before a presidential election. The other is the dawning wisdom that displaying uncompromising intransigence on holding elections may in the long run have a counterproductive effect on voters when presidential elections are held.
The Opposition demands LG elections saying democracy is being denied. The Government refuses to hold LG elections saying there is no money. Both these claims are only partially true. The real reasons are different. The Opposition wants to register an impressive win at the LG polls and then utilise that victory to demand Parliamentary elections saying this Government has no mandate. The Government is obstinately refusing to conduct LG polls to avoid such a situation.
Nevertheless the Government does have a valid reason for refusing to hold LG elections. The committee headed by former Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has compiled a delimitation report for LG authorities. The number of LG authority members has been halved from over 8,000 to less than 5,000. As such it is better to wait and conduct new elections under the new scheme and elect a lesser number of councillors. What is puzzling is why the Government is not emphasising the point that LG polls could be conveniently held under the new provisions in the future.
It is against this backdrop that President Wickremesinghe seems to be thinking of holding staggered provincial polls. As stated earlier, the nine provincial councils completed their terms of office at different times in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The last PC to be dissolved was the Uva PC in October 2019. Fresh elections to the Provincial Councils was delayed due to the enactment of the new Provincial Council Act under which a new electoral system was introduced. The new law stipulated that new wards be demarcated by the Delimitation Commission before elections were to be held.
This has not been done yet. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe “Yahapalanaya” administration was accused of delaying the PC polls through this ruse because that Government feared defeat in the PC elections. The 2018 Local authority polls confirmed those fears. The advent of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 and the SLPP Parliament victory in 2020 too did not bring about PC polls. This was because the Gotabaya Government wanted to abolish the PCs or seriously reduce the PC’s powers through a new Constitution.
Even though the PC polls were put on hold under the pretext of conducting them under a new electoral system, it was possible to have PC elections under the old system by amending the Provincial Council Act with a simple majority. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian and lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran has on three separate occasions submitted private members motions to amend the PC act for this purpose. There has been no follow up action.
It now appears that President Wickremesinghe may initiate moves to bring about necessary amendments and pave the way for PC polls under the old system. It is also learnt that Ranil is considering the possibility of holding PC polls on an electoral district by district basis instead of conducting a poll for the entire province as at present. This would enable polls to be held in each electoral district of a province separately in different stages. Amendments to the PC act may be needed to enable PC polls to be held in each electoral district on a staggered basis.
More importantly staggered PC polls would greatly facilitate the Treasury into providing finances for the polls. It would be easier to allocate smaller amounts of funds needed for one or two provincial polls at a time instead of doing so for all PCs together.
By advancing the PC polls ahead of the presidential election on a staggered basis, President Wickremesinghe hopes to reduce the pressure on him to conduct LG polls. The newly elected PCs could handle the local authorities until LG elections are held in due course.
As stated earlier it is unclear and uncertain at this juncture as to whether President Wickremesinghe would go in for staggered PC elections or not. But if he does so, he is most likely to do so after the present Election Commission is re-constituted with a new Chairman. There is much speculation that Mahinda Deshapriya may be the next Election Commission chairman.
There is a strong political motive in Ranil Wickremesinghe going in for staggered PC polls starting from the North. The PCs were introduced through Indian efforts to provide a scheme of power sharing to the people of the North and East. Therefore it would satisfy India that has been reiterating that PC elections should be held soon. It is to be noted that the long awaited visit by President Wickremesinghe to New Delhi is yet to take place.
Apart from the Indian factor, Ranil’s proposal is also likely to minimise potential political damage to him. If polls are held for all the provincial councils together, the possibility of poll success is very remote for the UNP or its current tactical ally the SLPP. Both parties are likely to fare very poorly at the PC elections held in the seven Sinhala majority provinces. If that happens it may impact adversely on Ranil at the presidential election too.
Electoral prospects for the UNP and SLPP are quite slim in the North also, but it would not matter as the northern electoral spoils would be shared by Tamil and Muslim parties and not the SJB or JVP. This would be very much the scenario in the East too except for the Sinhala areas. However the Northern and Eastern poll verdict would not seriously affect Ranil Wickremesinghe’s chances at a presidential election.
What then about PC poll verdicts in the Sinhala majority provinces? It is highly unlikely that PC elections would be held in the seven provinces except perhaps the North-Central Province. What is most likely is the holding of PC polls on a staggered basis in the North and East and possibly the NCP in late 2023 and early 2024. The presidential election is likely to be held after that. If Ranil wins as he hopes, the political situation would be transformed in his favour.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)