For the first time, 3-pronged election battle for PCs and local councils

  • SC determination on 20A to be announced by Speaker on Tuesday; if Referendum isrequired, 3 PC polls will be held first
  • UNP on a good wicket despite SLMC plans, but Sirisena’s UPFA in tricky position against Rajapaksa’s JO
  • Arundika joins Rajapaksa, but 9 other SLFP MPs backtrackon plans to cross over

Plans are on the drawing board for the two coalition partners – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) – to contest each other at an upcoming Provincial Council or Local Government election. It is most likely the PC polls will come first followed by elections to local government institutions.
Friday was World Democracy Day and Elections Commission officials are seen carrying placards calling for the protection of the rights of voters.

Such a poll will also break with the tradition of two major political parties vying with each other during past elections. Entering the fray will be a third formidable group, the result of changes in the political landscape after the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. This is the first time in two and half year that the SLFP and the UNP are parting ways for a poll which is significant. It will also be the first time that the coalition partners are seeking public approval for their two and half year Yahapalanaya or good governance rule.

The SLFP will field candidates under the umbrella of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The UNP has revived its grouping under the United National Front (UNF). Emerging as the third force is the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though he is the de-facto head of the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), talks are under way to form an alliance under a new name. Also in the fray is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Though it does not have a reach countrywide, it has its voter base in many districts. The North is a different political scene with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) dominating the area even though Provincial Council elections are not due there just yet. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has a foothold in the East, where PC elections are due.

For all these parties and even the Elections Commission, the focus this week has remained the Supreme Court determination on the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution. A three judge bench – Chief Justice Priyasath Dep, Justice Anil Gooneratne and Justice Vijith Malalgoda – which examined the draft amendments has already delivered its determination under sealed cover to the Speaker with a copy to the President. The SC heard some 23 petitions from political parties, civil society organisations and NGOs challenging the 20A. The Court’s determination — believed to be by majority 2-1 vote — was dispatched to the Speaker and the President on Thursday hours before Chief Justice Dep left for South Korea and then Japan to participate in the Chief Justices conference.

20A’s implications

In essence, the 20A seeks to hold elections for all PCs on the same date. A transitional provision empowers Parliament to dissolve all PCs on the specified date. Such a date is not to be later than the expiration of the term of last constituted PC. This is if the term of the PC concludes prior to the said specified date, the term of such PC to be extended beyond that date until the specified date. In the event of any Provincial Council being dissolved, the powers of such Council are to be exercised by Parliament.

The SC determination will be made known to Parliament by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on Tuesday (September 19) when he returns from an official visit to the House of Commons in Britain earlier this week and attending commemoration events connected with the 153rd birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala in Buddha Gaya today. In this backdrop, political parties have been discussing possible scenarios based on what the SC may rule. One such possibility being discussed is a scenario where if the Court has declared that besides a two thirds vote to pass 20A, a referendum of the people is also required to extend the term of the PCs.

Petitioners have argued before the SC that an amendment to Article 154 E of the Constitution, the five-year term of the PC which expires prior to the specified date being extended, would be without a mandate of the people in a province. They argued that the mandate given by the electors was for a term of five years for a PC and Parliament being allowed to extend its term of office was against such a mandate. They also pointed out that the Constitution at present has no provision for the extension of a term of a PC and only the Governor had the power to dissolve it prior to the expiration of the five-year term.

Some petitioners alleged that the 20A is purposely coupled with political necessities, and is designed to safeguard the interests of the Government and repugnant to constitutional principles. They sought an SC directive that 20A does not become law unless passed by a two thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum. Another scenario that is being looked at is the possibility of the SC determining that only a two thirds vote is necessary, and not a referendum. However, the President is now aware of the determination and would have passed the information to his Government partners before he emplanes for New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly sessions (UNGA).

Why is the SC determination so important? It is on that ruling, that the Election Commission will discern which election would be held first, the three pending Provincial Councils – Sabaragamuwa, North Central and East or the Local Government polls. Should there be the necessity for a referendum, a Government source opined that they were likely to drop the idea of moving forward with a 20A. This is because the Government would then become helpless when it comes to end of terms and pending polls to the three PCs – Sabaragamuwa (September 26), Eastern (September 30) and North Central (October 1). The conduct of a referendum, a time consuming process, will not help put off these polls since a law to do so would not be in place. Thus, it would be impossible to apply the 20A to these PCs even if such an amendment is adopted.In such an event, the PC polls are most likely to come first. Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has already made clear that he would await a communication from Parliament only till October 2. If there was no such intimation, he would issue a Gazette notification calling for nomination for elections to the three PCs. An official source said elections could be planned for December 9. Earlier, plans have been afoot to hold nominations for local bodies from around November 7 to 14 and conduct an election around January 8 next year. However, the situation may change in the light of the new developments.

Sirisena’s tough stand
Ahead of the polls, the leader of the SLFP’s Central Committee has endorsed President Maithripala Sirisena’s move to field candidates on the UPFA ticket. The bulath kole (Betel leaf) is their symbol. Sirisena has chosen to take a tough line against party parliamentarians whom he believes are trying to “destabilise” the SLFP by consorting with the rival faction. In a move that gave a strong signal to others, he sacked Deputy Minister Arundika Fernando from his post as Deputy Minister of Tourism and Christian Affairs. Fernando visited Sirisena at his Paget Road residence to offer an explanation. While he was there, the President asked Fernando to accompany him to an event in Orugodawatte, fuelling speculation that he had relented and apologised. A minister, Chandima Weerakkody in fact publicly stated they would see Fernando back in a separate ministry.

However, Fernando told Mahinda Rajapaksa that he had not apologised and later told a news conference he would not go back to the Government which he said was on the verge of collapse. He had earlier been questioned by the police on his meeting with a fugitive relative of Rajapaksa, former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga in Japan recently. The Joint Opposition’s parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena told a news conference on Friday that Fernando had stated that he would sit with the ‘JO’ and “co-operate with it to oust the UNP government. When Parliament meets next week, Fernando will ask the Speaker to give him a different seat,” Gunawardena said.

Some nine SLFP parliamentarians who were planning to sit as independent MPs in the Opposition bench have abandoned the move, at least temporarily. Among them is a vociferous minister with strong links to the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP. Though he conveyed his decision to leave to Sirisena, the minister in question has had second thoughts. His colleagues say it is related to an investigation by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) into an allegedly fraudulent deal. Informal moves by a group of SLFPers supporting Rajapaksa to forge an understanding with the Sirisena faction to field common UPFA candidates have also come a cropper.

Sirisena was not in favour of their suggestion to form a broad alliance under a different name and have a separate symbol. He has insisted that they were welcome to contest under the UPFA, much the same way they did during elections in the past. Now, Sirisena has asked the party leaders not to give nominations to any Rajapaksa faction members who have attempted to undermine the SLFP that he leads. Some such supporters in PCs are now being removed from posts of ministers whilst changes are also being made among electoral organisers. Whether this would consolidate Sirisena’s position or weaken both him and the SLFP remains a question.

UNP has problems too
The UNP, which is reviving the United National Front (UNF), is not without its own problems. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), a constituent partner, wants to contest some local councils under its name and its symbol, the tree. The SLMC has been riven by many a crisis. Its leader Rauff Hakeem was not available for comment and calls to him went unanswered. However, General Secretary Nizam Kariapper told the Sunday Times, “‘The SLMC is considering options to face the upcoming local government polls separately in Northern and Eastern areas while looking at the possibilities of contesting with coalition partners in the rest of the country. There is still no final decision taken on this matter as elections are yet to be declared. Once it is done, our party high command will decide.” An influential section in the UNP is not in favour of the SLMC move. One of them said, “They are trying to get the best of both worlds, typically.”

On the other hand, the SLMC wants to ensure its identity is not diluted in its strong bases particularly at a time when in-fighting in the party has been high. A one-time senior member Basheer Segu Dawood who claims he represents the “pure SLMC” declared that a formidable faction was now in talks with other Muslim groups to form a joint alliance. “We strongly believe this would be advantageous for all Muslim parties in the east but an alliance with national parties will be entered into thereafter to contest in other parts of the country,” he told the Sunday Times. He said former SLMC General Secretary Hassan Ali was also a key player in the new effort. Former Minister and Ambassador to Singapore. Ferial Ashraff, the widow of SLMC’s founding leader, A.H.M. Ashraff was photographed this week with Azad Sally, one-time deputy mayor of Colombo and bitter critic of the UNP. The caption to the photograph released to the newspapers by Sally said that Mrs. Ashraff pledged her support, and that of her son to Sally’s National Unity Alliance (NUA). Yet, the SLMC still retains a substantial voter base particularly in the East.

Entering the fray for the first time will be the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now MP for the Kurunegala District. He told the Sunday Times; “We will contest both the PC and the local government polls.” Elaborating on his remarks was his brother and former Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, one-time chief organiser of the SLFP. He said discussions had reached the final stage for the formation of an alliance of all parties opposed to the Government. He said though the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) wished that the proposed alliance would use their SLPP symbol – a flower bud (or pohottuwa) – a final decision was yet to be made. Asked about the chances of victory for the proposed alliance, Rajapaksa said, “We are confident we will win two out of three provincial councils for which polls are due. We will also win a formidable number of local bodies.” He said during their campaign “we will educate the people on how moves have been made to put off elections for fear of losing. Otherwise why keep putting them off?”

Dinesh Gunawardena, Leader of the ‘JO’ in Parliament, said that most candidates from the new alliance could include members who had been elected and served in local bodies until their terms ended. More than eight parties will be in the new alliance. We will also have to make way for younger candidates and women as stipulated in the new law.” He said they hoped to finalise matters by next month.

Why 20A?

The JVP will also field candidates for all three PC elections and the local government polls. Like the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the JVP also extended its support to the Government to ensure 20A is adopted by contributing to a two thirds vote. However, the TNA did so only after an assurance from the UNP leadership that the Northern Provincial Council will be allowed to run its full term next year. Earlier, they declared that they would strongly oppose the 20A.

The recent delays over the Election Commission holding local counil or PC elections were the result of the Government’s move to introduce the 20A. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, backed by President Sirisena, recommended that this constitutional amendment be carried out. As revealed earlier, Premier Wickremesinghe gave four reasons why “it is more logical, reasonable and appropriate to hold elections to all PCs on the same day, a day as decided by Parliament, between the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, most probably an accepted procedure similar to mid-term elections in the United States (second year of each Presidential Term).” The four reasons given by him were (a) Efficient utilisation of State Resources on Elections, (b) Elimination of undue disruptions to day-to-day life of the General Public and State Service Deliveries, (c) Dissipation of energies and resources of political parties throughout the country, minimising election related violence and state resources utilisation by some candidates, and (d) Accurate using of public perception as a barometer to evaluate the conduct of the incumbent Government, enabling it to take corrective measures, if needed. However, there was also a slip when he said that there would be a “distortion of public perception in the country regarding the popularity/unpopularity of a political party based on the outcome of the election held in a particular province that can be a deciding factor for the subsequent elections, having a chain-effect”.

At present, the term of a Provincial Council is five years and it cannot be dissolved prior to expiration of its term unless the Board of Ministers concurs to do so. It is mandatory for the Commissioner of Elections to call for nominations within one week from the date of such dissolution. In the event of the SC ruling that a referendum cum two thirds vote is required for 20A, it would be inevitable for the Elections Commission to conduct polls on staggered basis since current terms of PC would end on varying dates from September 2017 to October 2019.

Notwithstanding logical arguments on why PC polls should all be held in a day, there are also other contributory factors which have necessitated the passage of 20A. It is no secret the Government has been fighting shy of polls. In the case of local government elections, one is a likely scenario where the UNP would secure control of more bodies than the SLFP. Such an eventuality could be worse for President Sirisena, the leader of the SLFP. The resultant embarrassment could be made worse if his own party, now facing internecine issues, falls behind the proposed new Opposition alliance. It could be the same fate in the PC elections too.

On the other hand, for the UNP which is also facing accusations increasingly of bribery and corruption within its own ranks, the uphill task of winning the three PC polls as well as many local bodies, though challenging, would place it in an unenviable position, vis-à-vis its partner the SLFP.

Thus, the question is not one of whether the SLFP or the UNP that would be ahead. Even more importantly, the polls campaign is likely to bring in an unwelcome divide between the coalition partners in Government. Each side is bound to put the blame on the other for its inability to fulfil promises made during the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections exacerbating the existing tensions. This is in the backdrop of the MoU between the two sides lapsing last month, not being extended and both wanting to go their own way. Sirisena has already declared a decision would come in December this year. The UNP has set in motion its own plans.

One of the knots that will keep the two sides together will be the November 9 budget to be presented by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. In the coming week, he will table the Appropriation Bill for 2018. Highlights of allocations in this Bill appear in a box story. Samaraweera’s designer budget will no doubt be tailored to appease the public ahead of a poll.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the de facto leader of the Opposition says he is confident the new alliance will make new strides at the upcoming polls. Who will become the casualty and how the political groups will re-align themselves remains a critical factor.


Defence budget tops the list
Despite the end of the separatist war, defence expenditure continues to draw the highest allocation of funds in successive budgets.

The Appropriation Bill, approved by the Cabinet of Ministers and due to be presented in Parliament next week by Finance Minister

Mangala Samaraweera, records a commitment of Rs 260,711,375,000 as recurrent expenditure for the Ministry of Defence. The capital expenditure, however,is at Rs 30 billion.

The higher commitments are the result of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus expanding with the addition of new institutions over the years and the resultant updating of equipment. Yet, the sum is lower than the Rs 284 billion allocated in the previous years. In the Appropriation Bill for 2017 presented by then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, an allocation of Rs 1,819 billion (Rs. 1.8 trillion) was the estimated expenditure requirements. Of this amount Rs 1,208 billion was the total recurrent expenditure while the total capital expenditure was Rs 610 billion.

The Appropriation Bill is a piece of legislation in Parliament seeking authorisation for the Government to spend money. It sets aside money for specific spending.

Of the amount allocated for the Minister of Defence (a portfolio held by the President), a sum of Rs 4,973,062,200 (Rs. 4.9 billion) as recurrent expenditure for “Operational Activities” and a further Rs 4,789,167,000 for “Development Activities” as capital expenditure. Here is a breakdown of allocations for the armed forces:

Operational Activities – Sri Lanka Army – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 149,536,395,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 6,987,328,000.
Operational Activities – Sri Lanka Navy – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 50,368,948,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 7,108,621,000.
Operational Activities – Sri Lanka Air Force – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 36,512,600,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 6,687,837,000.
Operational Activities – Department of Civil Security – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 17,268,120,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 315 million.
Operational Activities – Department of Sri Lanka Coast Guard – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 38,250,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 53,200,000.

The second highest allocation is to the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media. The Recurrent Expenditure is Rs 196,517,853,000 and Capital Expenditure Rs 37,054,235,000. Other higher allocations include:
The Ministry of Health,Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 134,399,998,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 44 billion.

The Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 118,176,198,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 14,867,350,000.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 9,956,950,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 14,867,350,000.
The Ministry of Higher Education – Recurrent Expenditure Rs 32,757,000,000. Capital Expenditure Rs 150 billion.
The Appropriation Bill for the Financial Year 2018 makes provisions for expenditure estimated as Rs 1,997,264 million. It consists of Rs 1,308,939 million for recurrent expenditure and Rs 668,324 million for capital expenditure.

In addition, Minister Samaraweera has said, provisions have been made under special laws to service public debt and payment of Widows and Orphan Pension etc, amounting to Rs 2,005,103 million. The provision requirement for Advance Account Activities is Rs 6,000 million. “Hence, the total expenditure provision for 2018 without budget proposals to be introduced at the Second Reading of the budget is estimated at Rs 3,982,367 million. The revenue at the prevailing rate structure and foreign grants has been estimated to be around Rs 2,175,000 million. Therefore, the total borrowing requirement from both foreign and domestic sources will be Rs 1,813,367 million,” Minister Samaraweera has added.

Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya PC has said that the provisions of the draft Bill are not inconsistent with the Constitution. However, he has said that some clauses which he has identified as those “provide for the relevant sums to be included in the respective schedules which will be incorporated at a future date, upon the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers” is in “compliance with the decision of the Supreme Court.”

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