Postponed polls

Print edition : August 15, 1998

The Sri Lankan Government postpones the provincial council elections and declares a state of Emergency throughout the country, inviting controversy.

SRI LANKA's electoral system ran into yet another obstacle when President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced the postponement of the provincial council elections scheduled for August 28. While the announcement itself did not come as a surprise to a nation which had witnessed a debate on the issue for over a month, the method adopted and the reasons cited for the postponement have come under criticism.

Sri Lanka's provincial councils are a byproduct of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which provided for the setting up of these elected bodies as a second tier of government in a unitary state. The accord provided for the temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, bringing the number of provinces to eight. Elections were to have been held in five of these provinces. The three provinces that were excluded were the temporarily merged North-Eastern province (on account of the ongoing war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam there) and the Southern and North-Western provinces (since the terms of office of the present councils are yet to expire).

The Government has taken the stand that the current security situation in the country is not conducive to elections, on account of the internal war. It also argued that electioneering could expose the contestants to grave danger. The Govern ment's stand was supported by statements issued by the law-enforcement authorities who said that they did not have enough security personnel to ensure peaceful polling. Sections of the Buddhist clergy said that the military offensive in the North should not be weakened at any cost.

However, those who oppose the Government's move on the grounds that the Government was thwarting a democratic process are of the opinion that it should conduct the elections to allow the people to choose their representatives. According to critics, the real reason for the Government's decision is the fear of faring badly in the elections, which could in turn affect its prospects in more important elections such as elections to Parliament or an early presidential poll.

The slender majority of the ruling People's Alliance in Parliament requires the ruling coalition to depend on the issue-based support given by parties such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and former Tamil militant groups that have turned to parliamentary politics to push through legislation and effect the routine extensions of the Emergency in the North-East. Unable to push through its constitutional reforms package (the package is described as far-reaching by its proponents and inadequate by its opponents) which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the Government does not have much to show in terms of resolving the ethnic crisis, except good intentions. It is, however, doubtful whether such well-meaning intentions will help get votes. On the military side, Operation Jayasikuru, which is in progress in the North, could well have an important political role to play. If the armed forces succeed in securing the highway connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the Island, the Government would have something concrete to show the people. However, with the stalemate continuing on the constitutional front and no victory in sight in the battlefield, the ruling coalition has little to show. On the contrary, the Opposition is in a position to highlight the Government's failure in a whole range of issues.

THAT the Government planned to postpone the provincial elections was clear from the time it sought the Opposition United National Party's (UNP) support to amend the Constitution to postpone the polls and avoid the imposition of a state of emergency. The UNP's response was that it would do so if the presidential poll was advanced and held before the constitutionally stipulated minimum time of four years of the six-year term of the presidency expired. However, since the Government did not evince any interest in this proposal, the matter was left at that.

After the nomination process was over, the Election Commissioner issued a formal statement that the elections would be held on August 28. However, signs of election-related political activity, such as public meetings and the putting up of posters, were by and large non-existent. During the parliamentary debate on the extension of the Emergency in the disturbed northern and eastern regions in June, there was speculation that it would be extended to the rest of the island. However, no move in that direction was evident during the month when Colombo played host to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.

On August 4, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, by a proclamation, extended the Emergency to the entire nation. The same day the Parliamentary Group of the People's Alliance met to discuss the issue of postponing the provincial elections. A Presidential Regulation postponing the polls was issued the same day. The Election Commissioner made a formal announcement the next day. After a debate, Parliament approved the Government Regulation by a majority of 32 votes.

Although the Government move sailed through Parliament, some of the members of the ruling People's Alliance coalition are opposed to it. One of the parties that took a public stand against the decision was the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Its Member of Parliament Vasudeva Nanayakkara criticised the Government's move during the debate in Parliament and staged a walk-out. The LSSP's representative in the Cabinet abstained from voting. According to Nanayakkara, unless the matter is resolved soon, further strains could develop in the coalition.

While the UNP has declared that it would oppose the Government's move and take the issue to the people, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana has said that it would, along with the Left parties, begin a nationwide protest against the Government's decision to impose the Emergency and to postpone the provincial elections. There have also been suggestions that the matter could be taken to court.

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