Much-awaited elections are here!: Decisive days ahead

In what initially appeared to be a reversal of an earlier government decision, the government last week agreed to Local Government elections in January, after resolving some issues that had arisen over the creation of several new local government bodies, particularly in the Nuwara Eliya district.

Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, Faiszer Mustapha was due to publish the gazette notification paving the way for the eagerly awaited elections this week, after which the Elections Commission was due to announce the date of the poll.

This would bring to an end weeks of speculation as to when elections to over 300 local government bodies countrywide would be held and lay to rest claims by the Opposition that the government was deliberately delaying polls because it was apprehensive about its standing with the electorate.

The latest developments emerged after a party leaders’ meeting last week, convened by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Prime Minister was supportive of elections on the earliest available date, after making allowances for the Ordinary Level examination, which will be conducted in December.

Local Government elections

All three major contenders at the elections, the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the latter comprising mostly of the dissident faction of the SLFP supporting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, are now hastily preparing for the polls.

Ironically, perhaps the party best prepared for the elections will be the SLPP. That is not to say that it is the most popular. However it could be the best organised to face the elections because it was always gearing itself for the Local Government elections, seeing these polls as a vital test of its grassroots level support base and seeking to project the party to the country through these elections.

Despite this, there were reports that there was an eleventh hour attempt to reconcile the two factions of the SLFP.

This move was being mooted by Minister of Technology and Research and former general secretary of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Susil Premajayantha.

It will be recalled that during the August 2015 general election, Premajayantha, as general secretary of the UPFA found himself in a very difficult situation, when Rajapaksa loyalists were demanding nominations and loyalists of President Maithripala Sirisena was resisting these calls. After the election, Premajayantha was inducted into President Sirisena’s Cabinet but lost his position as UPFA general secretary to Mahinda Amaraweera.

For some months now, Premajayantha, though being a senior minister, has been voicing dissenting views. When the controversy over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) was being debated, Premajayantha openly defied the government, expressing solidarity with groups opposed to SAITM, much to the embarrassment of his Cabinet colleagues.

More recently, when maverick parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa stated that Parliament should be bombed if two-thirds of its members supported the draft Constitution and earned condemnation from many quarters including his own party, Premajayantha attempted to defend him, saying that what Weerawansa meant was that the draft Constitution should not be approved in its present form- and that he too agreed with that view.

SLFP factions

The latest and probably the very last move to unite the two factions of the SLFP is being undertaken by Premajayantha largely because a group which identifies itself as being ‘independent’- not formally aligned with either Rajapaksa or President Sirisena, but most of them holding office as ministers- fears the party would suffer if it went to the Local Government elections as a divided entity and face disastrous consequences.

Interestingly, neither President Sirisena nor former President Rajapaksa share this view. Both leaders are optimistic that they would fare well at the polls. Hence it is doubtful whether the efforts of Premajayantha will succeed.

In a further indication that attempts at reconciling the two factions of the SLFP might not be an exercise that yields a positive exercise, Deputy Minister of Posts and Postal Services, Duleep Wijesekera quit the government and sat on the Opposition benches on Monday.

Wijesekera, who represents the Gampaha district in Parliament, had already requested time to make a personal statement in Parliament and the political grapevine was abuzz with the news that he was about to defect to the Opposition. On Sunday, he was removed from his ministerial position by President Sirisena and he crossed over to the Opposition on Monday.

It is not only the SLFP that is going through a process of reorganisation, as Local Government elections loom on the horizon; the UNP too is restructuring its electoral network of organisers and a few changes came into effect on Monday, the most notable among them being the removal of popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake from the post of party organiser for the Divulapitiya electorate, also in the Gampaha district. Ramanayake was replaced by Kithsiri Manchanayake.

At the last general election, Ramanayake polled over 215,000 preference votes, the highest for the UNP in district, pushing hometown hero and cricketing celebrity Arjuna Ranatunga, who polled 165,000 votes into second place.

Ramanayake, a relative of actor turned politician Vijaya Kumaratunga, began his political career as electoral organiser for the Katana electorate and first entered Parliament in 2010 from the Ratnapura district. In Parliament, particularly in government, Ramanayake has been outspoken and has been controversial in his actions. Once, he earned the wrath of the public when he castigated an official publicly, invoking curses on her saying that lightning should strike her.

Nevertheless, partly because of his film star status and also because of his brazen, forthright approach to issues, he remains popular among the masses and it remains to be seen how he would react to his removal- and the impact this has on the party.

Other changes effected by the UNP are the appointments of Rosy Senanayake as organiser for Colombo East replacing lawyer Srinath Perera and the appointment of Hirunika Premachandra as organiser for Ratmalana.

Electoral system

While the appointment of Senanayake comes as no surprise, there is the likelihood of the former beauty queen and diplomat running for mayor in the Colombo Municipal Council. Premachandra’s appointment did raise eyebrows because she comes from a family with firm roots in the SLFP. However, still young and with a charismatic personality, her battles against former parliamentarian Duminda Silva have earned her a sizeable following and this latest move augurs well, both for Premachandra and the UNP. The SLPP meanwhile, nominally led by Basil Rajapaksa, is finalising its own plans for the Local Government elections. Rajapaksa is known for his skill in running election campaigns and his ability as a backroom negotiator, but this is the first instance where he is doing so from the ranks of the Opposition and, as Rajapaksa knows well, it is quite a different ball game when the resources of the state are not available- and are available to the government.

Ironically, with the governing parties- both the mainstream SLFP and the UNP- carrying the burdens of incumbency and the SLPP still being an unknown quantity with question marks hanging over the integrity of its leadership, it could have been the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that emerged as an alternative.

However, the party, even under the leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake, appears to be clinging to archaic left of centre policies and has failed to capture the imagination of the masses. The change of the electoral system to a mix between the first past the post and proportional representation systems also hampers the party’s chances to a significant extent. All in all, the next three months are likely to generate more political heat and debate, holiday season notwithstanding. Nevertheless, elections are a necessary evil in a democracy and for these particular elections, most will agree that it is better late than never.

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