PC polls - beckoning from the distance | Sunday Observer

PC polls - beckoning from the distance

Mahinda Deshapriya is an outspoken man. The former Commissioner of Elections and now head of the National Elections Commission (NEC) has declared that Parliament has to sort out the mess it has got itself into over the Provincial Council elections and that he cannot do anything about it.

His declaration has got the Joint Opposition (JO) and its political proxy, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in a huff. Its nominal Chairman, former Minister and Prof of Law, G. L. Peiris who is now acting as His Master’s Voice has said, his party would challenge the NEC in the Supreme Court, compelling the Commission to conduct elections.

So be it. That is what democracy is for. Every man and his dog has a right to have his say. Let the courts- which are now untrammelled by political Gods telling them what they should do and what they should not do- decide wisely.

The government though must seriously rethink the path it is taking. Its official position is that elections to Provincial Councils cannot be held now because a new law has been passed governing those polls which require the delimitation of boundaries to be done afresh. That task has not been completed yet.

Strictly speaking, that is indeed true. The delimitation has not been completed yet. The government has also not been unable to decide whether provincial polls are to be conducted on a solely proportional representation (PR) basis or whether it should be a combination of the PR and first past the post methods. The latter was used in the recent Local Government polls, but led to many a headache, both, for election officials as well as political parties.

However, this excuse is one we have heard before. That was in the lead up to the Local Government elections. After many postponements, prevarication and procrastination, the polls were eventually held. The rest, as they say, is history.

The two governing parties took a significant beating. The United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came a distant second. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena was virtually an ‘also ran’ in the race. The big winner was the SLPP, or the ‘pohottuwa’ party and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The political fallout from that election has been massive. The Prime Minister had a vote of no-confidence moved against him. The President saw sixteen of his parliamentary group defect to the Opposition, some of them being senior Ministers in his government. The former President got what he wanted- an endorsement from the people that could put his political career back on track.

In hindsight, it would be fair to say that, had the elections to the local councils been held when they were first due, instead of delaying and dilly-dallying, the results would not have been as catastrophic for the two governing parties, the UNP and the SLFP. Also, had they been held earlier, the SLPP would not have had time to organise itself and would not be the political force it now is.

One would expect that the government would be, once bitten twice shy, after postponing those elections. They are not, though. They still appear very keen to postpone the PC polls as well, come what may, citing legislative obstacles.

Right now, only the polls for North Central, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces are due. However, by the time the next major election- the presidential election- is due in January 2020, elections to all nine Provincial Councils in the country will be due. So, is the government planning on stalling and stagnating the polls for all these councils?

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was in office, there were too many elections. After the Presidential Election that won him a second term in 2010, there were Provincial Council elections in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and he then called for the Presidential Election in 2015, which he lost.

Rajapaksa, of course, was no political philanthropist. He did not conduct elections because he was a great believer in democracy. He held them because he wanted to take advantage of his victory in the Eelam war, so he could establish his stranglehold on power at every level of government. In fact, he staggered the elections so that the government could channel all its resources to a few selected regions.

Rajapaksa too fought shy of conducting the one election that he knew he would not win: the first ever election to the Northern Provincial Council. It took a lot of lobbying and arm twisting from the international community and neighbouring India to conduct those elections.

It is true then that governments will hold elections with alacrity when they know that they can be won. By the same token, they will give any excuse not to hold them, when they fear they will lose. This is what is happening now.

If that is indeed the strategy being pursued by the government, they need to think again. If they conduct elections now and if the UNP and the SLFP fair poorly, they still have a little less than two years to turn the searchlight inwards, find out what went wrong and try to set things right.

By dragging their feet and postponing the polls with lame excuses, they may well be compelled to conduct the elections much closer to the Presidential Elections in 2020. If they fair badly then, that would be a disaster because Sri Lankans are well known for going with the flow, which could have a domino effect on the Presidential and General Elections.

The first hint of a government in trouble is when it begins to fear elections. When it tries every trick in the book to try and postpone them, the Sri Lankan voter doesn’t look upon that exercise kindly. We are, after all, a mature democracy and our electorate likes to have its say. No matter how undesirable our politicians are, they like to choose the best out of a bad lot. They should be given that chance.

What the government should realise is that, even now, it is better late than never.