Yesterday’s country-wide local government elections were anything but about pot-holed council roads, street lighting, clogged waterways, garbage disposal or combating dengue. Neither had it to do with issues that are not in the domain of local councils but impact the lives of rural voters such as providing fertiliser to farmers or jobs for the jobless. [...]


Yesterday’s ‘National Referendum’


Yesterday’s country-wide local government elections were anything but about pot-holed council roads, street lighting, clogged waterways, garbage disposal or combating dengue. Neither had it to do with issues that are not in the domain of local councils but impact the lives of rural voters such as providing fertiliser to farmers or jobs for the jobless.

For the political leadership of this country, however, it was an unofficial national referendum on the three-year-old National Unity Government.
The political leadership made it appear so. The President’s almost singular slogan was his battle against corruption which he claimed, that only he could give leadership to because everyone else in the political arena, he said, was corrupt. His coalition partner, the UNP, which once held the moral high ground on corruption until the Central Bank bond scam blew up, talked of nepotism, authoritarianism and the ‘dark era’ of yesteryear, while the ‘Joint Opposition’ centred its campaign around their still charismatic de-facto leader who they claimed can ‘deliver’. The ‘JO’, in fact, asked the voters to treat this ‘mini election’ as a national referendum and a first step in ousting the National Unity Government.

As the results poured in from last night, that will be the way the post-mortem on yesterday’s elections will be read. How many votes did each party (read; each leader) receive and how will that be a prediction for the next important poll – the Presidential election of 2020, now that we know the Executive Presidency will almost certainly continue.

That is no different to the way Provincial Council election results were read in the past. So much so, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government kept holding periodic PC elections mainly to keep defeating the UNP and paint it as a party that cannot win elections, and thereby demoralise its cadres. It worked for the then Government until it came to the final hurdle – a Presidential election in 2015 when its calculations went haywire.

There is always the debate whether a single Special Commissioner can run a local council more efficiently than a corrupt council filled with corrupt councillors. The problem is, when the Special Commissioner himself, or herself, is inefficient or corrupt, or both. Then, there is the yearning to ask for the return of elected councillors who are accessible to the citizen unlike a super bureaucrat.

Most local councils are corrupt. It is not wrong to say that they reflect the state of the nation. From getting planning permission to build condominiums to council contracts and obtaining CoCs (Certificates of Conformity) for housing without conforming to laid down rules and regulations, and getting garbage clearance contracts, greasing the palms of councillors and officials alike has become the norm not the exception. That is why most Sri Lankan cities and townships are unplanned and ugly.

A concerted effort at beautifying the bigger cities a few years ago has now gone into the limbo of forgotten things, and the cities reverted to near slum-city status, stinking, with piles of garbage strewn down street corners, dengue on the rise, and garbage dumps falling on people’s heads. A Commission of Inquiry that went into one such ‘accident’ handed over its findings to the President only four days before yesterday’s elections. One might expect the report to go into the garbage bin as well.

The Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry has been allocated Rs. 212 billion for 2018, 5.4% of the total budget. While the Provincial Councils are bound to receive a fair share of this vote, municipalities have opportunities to extract monies from rates, advertising hoardings, parking fees etc. The smaller councils, however, get a pittance and have to fend for themselves the best way they can. As a result the rural countryside is ruined by huge billboards on paddy fields and streets, advertising consumer products. The ruling parties unfairly campaigned on the footing that local councils must rely on the Central Government for hand-outs and ask the people therefore to vote for them. But the anti-incumbency factor may be the very cause for the voter to reject them.

The bigger picture, of course, is the political fallout for the political parties and the future of their leaders. The fact that all the main political leaders put their faces forward, and their futures at stake at what was essentially meant to be a ‘mini poll’ explains the importance of these elections – a litmus test for all of them.

Given the strengths and weaknesses of parties contesting, the anticipated outcome from yesterday’s elections was that most councils would not see a single party getting an outright majority of seats to control them. This will result in MoUs and ‘horse-trading’ to form coalitions. In that respect, it would truly be a vignette, or mirror of what the people presently witness in the national arena.

The Election Commission had asked the voter not to be a ‘marketable product’ susceptible to treating and promises by candidates – something they found happening even at this mini-election. In the North, the TNA still maintains its grip on the region’s politics despite cracks in the otherwise monolithic alliance. It is a virtual one-party, or one-alliance ‘state’ there. The province has not been able to come out of its ethnic politics when it comes to elections even though the pace of infrastructure development comes only third to Colombo and Polonnaruwa.

At the Centre, however, it is the President who is clearly in a bind. If the overall results see the party he leads come a poor third losing most of the councils, it is going to make him a lame-duck Chief Executive till the run-up for the 2020 Presidential election, which he hopes to contest again.

The options he will have will narrow if this be the case. It will vary from giving up any thoughts of contesting for a second term to acting more authoritatively by showing he is still in charge overriding his coalition partner’s (UNP) every move and running the country from the Presidential Secretariat even if it be with what might end up as his rag-tag and bobtail of a party. The reaction to such a course might be a ganging up of the UNP and the ‘Joint Opposition’ to impeach him through Parliament. This would then force the President to only one course of action and that would be to continue working with the UNP for the rest of his term, even though he has not entirely given up covert attempts to build broken bridges with the ‘Joint Opposition’ – which then, would mean trouble for the UNP.

All this is what makes yesterday’s election results more than just a mini-election. It is something for everyone to gauge the public mood – and the future of national politics.

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