Provincial Council elections: The expertise of postponing | Sunday Observer

Provincial Council elections: The expertise of postponing

Parliamentary history was created last week and went almost unnoticed: for the first time, a report presented by the Government was defeated by the Government! The matter at hand was the Delimitation Committee Report for the Delimitation of Electorates in Provincial Councils. Even the Minister of Sports, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Faiszer Musthapha, who presented the report to Parliament, voted against it saying he had ‘reservations’ about it. As a result, the ‘on again’, ‘off again’ Provincial Council elections are now ‘off again’.

What on earth was all the fuss about then, one might ask? The Delimitation Committee was appointed to carve out electoral areas in respect of each Provincial Council. That is because amendments to legislation governing Provincial Councils, also passed by Parliament last year, had decreed that elections should be held on a system that combined the Proportional Representation (PR) systems and the first past the post system. The underlying concept was that specific areas should have designated representatives. This was no committee of minions. It comprised persons of repute and integrity: former Surveyor General Kanagarathnam Navalingam (Chairman), retired Sri Lanka Central Bank Assistant Governor Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike, Prof S. H. Hasbullah, Prof Sangara Wijeyasundiran and retired Assistant Elections Commissioner Premathilaka Siriwardena. In a tragic twist to the tale, Prof Hasbullah died shortly after the vote was defeated in Parliament. By the time this committee had produced its recommendations, local government elections had been held under a similar system. It was chaotic.

Certain provisions, such as, mandatory female representation created many headaches, both for political parties and election officials. In light of that experience, political parties had lost their appetite for a new system. Now, the government finds itself in a catch-22 situation: it cannot hold the elections under the new system because the Delimitation Committee Report has been rejected by Parliament.

At the same time, it cannot hold elections under the previous system because amendments to the Provincial Councils Act does not allow that. So, it does the next best thing, appointing another committee! The Delimitation Committee cost the Government over Rs. 21 million, officials say. That is almost a rupee each for every man, woman and child in this country. Has that money been put to good use, we must ask? Or is there more to it than meets the eye? Is there another story behind the rejection of the Delimitation Committee Report? The three major political groups in Parliament- the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) and the Joint Opposition (JO) all voted against the Report as did the Tamil National Alliance.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was conspicuous by its absence at the time of voting. In the end, 139 voted against the Report, and not a single MP voted for it. It is no secret that neither the UNP nor the SLFP want elections at this stage. After delaying polls to local government institutions for many months, they were finally held in February this year. The de facto political party of the JO, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna swept the boards in a vast majority of the Councils but most Municipalities remained with the UNP.

The SLFP was an ‘also ran’, coming a distant third. It does not take a rocket scientist to deduce that there is concern both in the UNP and the SLFP, and in the latter more so, that it will repeat itself if elections are held to Provincial Councils soon. Remember, the ‘big’ elections- the presidential elections and general elections- are due in less than two years. If there is a one-sided result in Provincial Council elections, that could set the tone for the major elections.

Therefore, any trick in the book to stall elections would be welcome. Given the complicated nature of the elections system, ensuring that the Delimitation Committee Report is defeated must be child’s play for our ‘smart’ politicians. What is funny is that all parties agreed about this, even the JO.

Earlier, the JO was agitating for Provincial Council elections. Its self-proclaimed head, G. L. Peiris was preparing legal challenges against the postponement of the polls. Now, the JO seems to have lost its hunger for elections although its official version is that it felt the Delimitation Committee Report ‘did not meet the aspirations of the people’.

Regardless of what the Report recommended, if the Government and the Opposition agreed to conduct polls, they could have arrived at some kind of consensus and held elections. Didn’t someone once say that politics is the art of the possible? Any election, under whatever system that tests the will of the people is better than no elections at all but in this case, it seems as if our politicians seem hell bent on making the possible, impossible.

Therefore, what we have now is a stalemate of sorts. Elections to the Councils in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Province are now due. One by one, the terms of office of the other six Provincial Councils will also lapse and those Councils would cease to function.

All nine Provinces will be due for elections by September 2019. A betting man can safely wager that elections to these Councils will not be held until the next presidential and general elections are held.

One could argue, there are constitutional hurdles that need to be overcome before elections are held. Or, one could be more realistic and call it what it is: sheer political expediency. Postponing elections is nothing new in this country.

Sirima Bandaranaike did it in 1972, J. R. Jayewardene did it ten years later. If general elections can be postponed what qualms would our politicians have about postponing a mere Provincial Council poll? Let us look on the bright side, though. At least we now have in Faiszer Musthapha, a Minister who specialises in postponing elections.

He apprenticed by postponing the local government elections first, then he postponed elections to Sri Lanka Cricket and now he has postponed provincial polls. Maybe, we should add a portfolio and designate him as the ‘Minister of Sports, Provincial Councils, Local Government and Postponing Elections’!