Provincial Councils, nothing more than another unwanted layer in politics! | Sunday Observer

Provincial Councils, nothing more than another unwanted layer in politics!

Just when the country appears to be getting excited over the prospect of a presidential election in the next few months and campaigning has already begun with one candidate being announced, President Maithripala Sirisena appears to have thought otherwise.

Last week, it was announced that the President has sought a determination from the Supreme Court seeking its opinion as to whether elections to Provincial Councils can be held in the present circumstances. If the court says ‘yes’, there could still be Provincial Council elections before the Presidential Elections!

While this strategy is a tribute to President’s Sirisena’s now undoubted knack for doing the unpredictable, it raises important questions about the integrity of Sri Lanka’s democratic framework and the utility of Provincial Councils.

Provincial Councils were foisted on the nation by the now infamous Indo-Lanka Accord signed between then President J.R. Jayewardene and then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in 1987. Gandhi paid for his folly with his life; Jayewardene paid for it tarnishing his place in the country’s history.

The very purpose of the Provincial Council system was to offer more autonomy to the provinces as a means of ensuring that regions dominated by the so-called ‘minority’ communities had more of a say in their own affairs. Ironically, this is not what happened. Initially, a merged North-Eastern Provincial Council functioned briefly from 1988 to 1990. Thereafter, elections to the Eastern Provincial Council were held only in 2008 and an elected Northern Provincial Council came into being much later- in 2013!

Right now though, the Government has got its political knickers in a twist with the Provincial Council polls. That is because Parliament had previously passed legislation amending the Provincial Councils Act that requires polls to be held on a ‘hybrid’ model that mixed both the first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems of elections. The 2018 Local Government elections were held on such a basis.

However, the mixed system for Provincial Councils required a new delimitation process that earmarked ‘constituencies’. Unfortunately, the report of the Delimitation Commission submitted to Parliament was rejected unanimously by the legislature.

Therefore, the Government is caught in a bind: it cannot hold provincial polls under the ‘old’ system because laws governing the election have now changed; it cannot conduct elections under the ‘new’ model because the recommendations for delimitation have been rejected.

The Opposition however sees a different angle in this. It claims that the Government is deliberately engaged in a ploy to delay the polls, so it can avoid another embarrassment, the kind of which it suffered at the 2018 Local Government elections.

Indeed, during his heyday, Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the epitome of democracy but the one accusation that cannot be made against him is of not conducting elections. He held provincial polls with unnerving regularity, of course, using them to his own advantage.

That is not the case now. Eight of the country’s nine Provincial Councils function under direct rule by their respective Governors. Only the Uva Provincial Council is in office but its tenure too will end in a few weeks.

This obviously begs the question: are Provincial Councils really necessary? Eight of the nine Provincial Councils in the country have been coming under direct rule, one by one. The provinces still function, as does the country. Are Provincial Councils a massive white elephant which is only there to massage the egos of up and coming politicians, providing a handful of them with enough name recognition, so that it is a stepping stone to national politics?

What is telling is the fact that the Northern Provincial Council, the council where this system should have had its maximum impact has been defunct for almost a year now and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which polled nearly eighty per cent of the vote at the last- and only- provincial polls in the province has hardly uttered a whimper in protest.

Apart from the North and East, Provincial Councils have functioned in the rest of the country for over thirty years. If they had a real impact, these regions should have fared spectacularly better than the North and East which were also beset by war. That hasn’t happened either. So, the evidence appears to be mounting to the effect that Provincial Councils are nothing more than another unwanted layer in politics which allows politicians to throw their weight around at a different level at a cost of billions of rupees.

Also, when decisions were made in such a manner that Provincial Council elections would not be expedited, the government was a coalition. The United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were sharing the spoils of government. Faiszer Mustapha was Minister of Provincial Councils. Postponing polls seems to have been Mustapha’s forte because elections to Sri Lanka Cricket were postponed as well when he happened to be Minister of Sports!

Therefore, it is a bit rich for the SLFP to turn around and now point fingers at their erstwhile partners for delaying the election when they themselves colluded in that, when it suited them. That does not absolve the UNP either.

At a time when public anger against politicians are at an all-time high, maybe the current impasse about Provincial Council elections should prompt those in authority to consider whether Provincial Councils really serve the purpose for which they were established- and if not, whether it is worthwhile spending humungous amounts of money to continue sustaining them?

That may even be a blessing in disguise for political parties. Is it not a fact that elections cost money? The upcoming Presidential Elections- by far the most critical election the country faces since January 2015- will drain the coffers of all parties and provincial polls, just before or after the presidential polls would be challenging.

The current scenario has evolved only because political parties acted with their narrow political interests in mind, when they were dealing with the legislation relating to the Provincial Council elections. Now, the time has come for them to make amends.