The upcoming local government elections to be held in March in some 80 per cent of 330 local government bodies in the country will prove to be interesting for many reasons. Notwithstanding the fact that the government has decided not to hold elections in areas where the Cricket World Cup matches are scheduled to be held, the polling will cover all districts of the country.
In Batticaloa too, where most of the district’s local bodies were elected in 2008 (and are therefore not yet due for elections) there are still two electoral divisions, Kathankudi and Koralapattu West that will participate. Elections were last held in those divisions in 2006. This all-island aspect of the upcoming LG poll makes it in a sense a ‘reality check’ for the incumbent government that swept into power on a wave of popularity in parliamentary elections last year.
|File photo: The Colombo Muncipal Council stands out in the city
Opposition members from both the UNP and JVP have taken note of the rumblings at grassroots level that seem to be reflected in the defeat of budget votes in no less than six government-led local bodies in the past month or so. These were, the Municipal Council of Anuradhapura (Anuradhapura district), the Urban Councils of Tangalle (Hambantota district) and Maharagama (Colombo district) and Pradeshiya Sabhas of Matara (Matara district), Beliatta (Hambantota district) and Mahawa (Kurunegala district). Of these, the budgets of Tangalle, Matara and Beliatta was later passed in a second vote, but those of Maharagama and Anuradhapura were defeated again in their second vote, with government members still voting against.
Another reason why these elections will be closely watched is the fact that this time all the mainstream political parties are likely to be in the fray. In the Batticaloa LG poll of 2008 for instance it was considered a setback that the TNA and UNP did not participate, citing security concerns. The war with the LTTE was not over at that point in time although the group had been defeated in the Eastern theatre. In spite of underlying tensions that election enabled the people of Batticaloa to exercise their franchise for the first time in 14 years.
The TNA did contest the LG elections in Jaffna (Jaffna district) and Vavuniya (Wanni district) electoral divisions, held in 2009 after a lapse of some 15 years. The TNA (Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi) won the highest number of seats in the Vavuniya Urban Council. In the Jaffna Municipal Council election the UPFA won the majority.
Now the rest of the local bodies in both the Jaffna and Wanni districts will be up for election, and no doubt these contests will be keenly observed. Tamil voters in these districts are likely to be wooed by the TNA, the government’s ally the EPDP led by Minister Douglas Devananda, and in some electoral divisions the TMVP, also a government partner, led by Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan.
In both the Northern and Eastern Provinces the alliances formed between parties, their campaigning strategies and the outcome of the election will be watched for signals as to whether the hiatus in Tamil electoral politics is being bridged, and how. A significant aspect of the parliamentary election of April 2010 was that it was the first country-wide election in three decades where the Tamil political leadership was free to participate without the LTTE’s ‘supervision.’ The local government election represents the second such exercise since the war’s end, and the various Tamil political factions have now had a little more time to take stock and better articulate their positions to their constituents.
It remains to be seen whether the main opposition UNP can shore up its fast evaporating support base among the minorities to make any showing in the North and East. The General Elections of 2010 showed up the party’s near-total lack of support in these provinces. Of the six seats won by the UNP-led United National Front coalition (UNF) in the East and the North combined, all but one were, thanks to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) that was a coalition partner. Since the SLMC has decamped to join government ranks, the UNP can no longer expect any help from this quarter. Although the SLMC contested on the UNP ticket in the 2008 Eastern Provincial Council election as well, it contested independently in the last local government elections of 2006/2008.
Asked if the party will contest alone or under the UPFA banner at the upcoming LG poll, SLMC’s General Secretary Hassan Ali said a decision would be taken on this by the party’s Politbureau in the coming week. At a meeting with village organizers in Amparai last week 99 per cent had been in favour of contesting independently. “Local government is our strength – so we will probably go it alone” he said, with reference to the East. “Outside the North and East we might consider going under the government (banner).” There has been no word on this subject from the government side he said.
With regard to the security concerns that arose on account of the existence of armed groups during previous local government elections in the East, Hassan Ali said “that problem is not there now – thank God.” The view that tensions had eased in the East seemed to be corroborated by Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of the election monitoring body PAFFREL, who said the situation had “changed, compared to 2006.” With regard to media reports of a number of killings and abductions in the North, he said he did not have enough information at this point to comment exactly on the situation.
An issue highlighted by Hettitarachchi with regard to the Jaffna district was that the voter register to be used in the upcoming LG elections there will not be up-to-date. The voter register that will be used will be that of year 2009. Hettiarachchi explained that each year forms were sent out to voters in June/July to gather information for the register, but this information was compiled and displayed only in the following year. The updated voter register for Jaffna based on information gathered in 2010 will come out only in May 2011. The term of the local government bodies ends April 1, and these polls have already been postponed by one year. Since the register based on old data will be used, it appears the Jaffna list will still include some 300,000 persons who have left the country or the area during several years of conflict. These names have been dropped in the updated list.
The issues that could arise in parts of the country other than the North and East would stem from the political pressures within the system, and not any longer from the LTTE or other armed groups, Hettiarachchi said. He was referring to the behaviour of politicians such as, their abuse of state resources, use of thuggery and intimidation, vote-rigging etc. These malpractices that bedevil electoral politics will provide ammunition to those who seek to discredit the elections and the democratic process in Sri Lanka. These parties include Sri Lanka’s enemies abroad. The government must make a very serious effort to put an end to these allegations and use this opportunity to demonstrate its capability of holding disciplined country-wide elections free of foul play.