Sirisena’s decision to lead SLFP campaign turns election into a battle for vote of confidence If SLFP goes it alone, what happens to the UPFA and to Mahinda Rajapaksa UNP also confident, PM’s economic plan and November Budget likely to boost the party’s chances JVP, SLMC object to demarcation of wards and new requirements, adding [...]


Nat. Govt. to part ways for local polls next year


  • Sirisena’s decision to lead SLFP campaign turns election into a battle for vote of confidence
  • If SLFP goes it alone, what happens to the UPFA and to Mahinda Rajapaksa
  • UNP also confident, PM’s economic plan and November Budget likely to boost the party’s chances
  • JVP, SLMC object to demarcation of wards and new requirements, adding new twists and puzzles to the equation

President Maithripala Sirisena’s declaration on Thursday in Kaduwela that he would lead the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) campaign at the upcoming local government elections portends far reaching political implications.

Main among them is the reality that he would take on the formidable partner in the National Government, the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Though he declared that the campaign itself “should become a platform where policy matters are discussed as in developed countries devoid of mud-slinging and character assassination,” it may not prove to be altogether right. Moreover, there is rancour even in the developed West during polls. Sirisena, who is giving leadership to the Government as President, will, of course, be mindful of the nuances and heed his own guidelines. So will a few others on both sides including Wickremesinghe.

However, a campaign without acrimony in Sri Lanka’s political culture would be as absurd as conducting polls without the ballot paper. An all-out, hard fought campaign between political opponents forms an essential component among opposing sides. Though the last presidential as well as the parliamentary elections recorded relatively less incidents, there indeed were many instances of mud-slinging and acrimony indulged in by all sides. There was also the other inevitability — violence. It is no secret that at both SLFP and UNP rallies, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family members and allies were accused of abuse of power and large scale corruption. On the other hand, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) leaders hurled personal abuse on their rivals including President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe.

As reported in these columns, some vociferous UPFA critics during the parliamentary election campaign even threatened to parade Sirisena on the streets without clothes. At least one of them apologised to Sirisena during a meeting but denied it when it was reported in the state media. Interesting enough, Sirisena’s itinerary in the past weeks has included district and village level meetings in different parts of the country. He even chaired District Coordinating Committee meetings in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. That was in marked contrast to Premier Wickremesinghe who was busy in the past weeks managing matters related to the economy including his Medium-Term Economic Strategy. He will present it to Parliament on Thursday. Some of the highlights appear in later paragraphs.

Past parallel
Though the circumstances were somewhat different, there was a parallel situation where a President and a Prime Minister campaigned for their respective parties in 2002. Just weeks after Premier Wickremesinghe signed the Norwegian brokered ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February of that year, there were local government elections. Then, leader of the People’s Alliance, the main constituent being the SLFP, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led their campaign. On the other hand, Premier Wickremesinghe spearheaded that of the UNP. Kumaratunga had put all her efforts in her ancestral pocket borough of Attanagalla. The UNP won the Pradeshiya Sabha there which encompassed almost the entirety of the Attanagalla electorate. However, the two were arch rivals in politics then.

It is at the local polls that political acrimony becomes even more potent than other polls. The candidates are from the grassroots level of the parties in the fray. It is not wrong to say that most Provincial Council members and parliamentarians have graduated from that tier. That includes both the SLFP and the UNP. That has been the practice in post-independent Sri Lanka since the advent of elections. This time, other issues too come to the fore. There is no gainsaying that it would be a litmus test for the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG). In focus would be the mounting cost of living unless tangible results emerge at the November 20 budget, the first by the Government. The falling rupee value to the US dollar has already set off a price spiral in not only essential commodities but also a variety of imported goods. The tea and rubber industries are in the doldrums. Just last Tuesday, Premier Wickremesinghe agreed to infuse one billion rupees for the Ceylon Tea Board to enter the auctions. A similar situation occurred in 2008 where producers, particularly small holders, complained that prices were far below their cost of production. The snowballing effect is on the labour where plucking or tapping rounds are curtailed to avoid expenditure. Thus, the benefits of a falling rupee against the dollar are not manna from heaven for tea exporters.

Govt’s failures
That apart, there are a multitude of other issues including pledges made at the campaign for the August 17 parliamentary elections. One such pledge is to bring to book those found to be corrupt. That the UNFGG has been slow to act or allegedly lukewarm towards some of the most important cases has drawn widespread public criticism. Added to that is the handling of the case of the assets of the son of a former VVIP in a Dubai bank. Exclusive disclosures in these columns have spurred the Government to shift strategy in what now appears to be a lengthy process. In many of these instances, there could be difficulties or procedural delays encountered by different state agencies.

However, a glaring weakness has been the Government’s inability, ever since the presidential election, to keep the public informed of developments. Resultantly, some of those who have been accused of wrongdoings and corruption still wield strong clout at the grassroots level with their credibility intact. Another issue of importance is finding employment for the youth who supported the Government, a problem that has affected practically every minister. In most instances, if the minister is from the UNP-led UNFGG, his deputy is from the SLFP. Thus, whatever available jobs have become highly competitive with one or the other striving to get his or her supporter in. With the local polls around, this is likely to exacerbate.

President Sirisena’s remarks on leading the SLFP polls campaign came when he spoke at a meeting held at the opening of a party office in Kaduwela. He pledged that he would bring the SLFP to victory and declared that the party was ‘immortal.’ He made clear that party activists who maintained a close rapport with the public would be selected to contest local polls. Such selections would be made in consultation with organisers at electorate level instead of direct interviews. ‘Smaller offences’ committed by them will be ignored. Noting that “any party should change with the times,” Sirisena said candidates would be picked in the next two months. He said some had blamed him for the defeat of the SLFP in the parliamentary elections and branded him a weak leader. He declared he would make sure that the SLFP is not defeated this time. He made clear that as leader of the UNP, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is entitled to lead his campaign and there was no issue about it. President Sirisena also said that one should change political positions to meet the needs of the current climate.

President Sirisena addressing the Kaduwela meeting where he made the important announcement that he would lead the SLFP campaign at the local council polls next year. Pic courtesy Presidential Office

Minister Duminda Dissanayake, General Secretary of the SLFP, elaborated on President Sirisena’s remarks. He told the Sunday Times, “As Chairman of the SLFP, the President will lead the local government elections campaign. We opened the first office of the SLFP in Kaduwela on Thursday under the patronage of the President. Our next plan is to select candidates. For this we will set clear guidelines and a code of ethics for the selection process. There were reports about how local government members were involved in illegal activities in the past. When considering new candidates we will make sure people with a history of breaking the law will not be selected. We hope to do the election campaign in a new way. We will also work with electorate organisers when selecting prospective candidates than focusing on only interviews. The SLFP has received a large number of applications. We did not even think we would receive such numbers. Local council members will be the ones who develop their areas; so we will ensure that the best are selected for this role.”

Minister Kabir Hashim, General Secretary of the UNP, was not available for a response. However, Deputy General Secretary, Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam told the Sunday Times, “What the President has explained goes with the current political trend. We have no issue about his statement as we currently have a national government made up of two main parties. He can lead his party while our leader will lead our party at the elections. Since we have a national government we do not expect any serious conflict between the party members at the upcoming local elections. As far as preparations for the elections are concerned, we are in a strong position and do not have to worry about victory at the elections.”

JVP’s opposition
Yet, there is scepticism among some political parties over the conduct of local polls under existing laws. One of the parties which strongly oppose the idea is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times yesterday, “There are a lot of issues. Though the laws were presented in Parliament by former Minister Athaullah, they were in fact drafted at the Economic Development Ministry of Basil Rajapaksa. When it was debated in Parliament, I asked Athaullah questions he could not answer. Some of the underlying intentions have become very clear. Take for example the deposits a candidate has to place. It has been set at Rs 5,000 each. If the JVP were to contest, it would have to pay Rs 25 million on this basis to field candidates in all parts of the country. An independent candidate is called upon to pay Rs. 25,000. This is not a fair system.”

Dissanayake said there should not be different laws for parliamentary, provincial and local elections. “There should be one system for all,” he said adding that “local polls cannot be put off.” However, he said, legislation to amend existing laws would become necessary. Confirming that the new laws have sought to edge out smaller parties like the JVP was Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Hakeem spoke out strongly against the new demarcation of wards and declared, “We were assured that they (the demarcation) would be changed. Nothing has happened so far. Minor and minority political parties (like the Communist Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) have been placed at a distinct disadvantage by what some errant bureaucrats and their leaders then had done. Assurances were given in Parliament that they would be rectified.” He said that the SLMC would have to assess the “ground situation” closer to the polls and decide how it would contest. He hinted that the SLMC might field candidates at predominantly Muslim areas. Hakeem said even the UNP was not happy the way the demarcation has been carried out.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will contest all seats in the North and East, its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan said yesterday. Added TNA parliamentarian for Trincomalee District R. Thurairatnasingham:

“One of the special features is that we will be fielding young candidates. Next week we will be meeting in Colombo to discuss our plans regarding the campaign for the elections. We will be discussing with the parties in the alliance on how nominations should be shared. At the last local elections our party returned 78 members. This time we hope to capture power in the Jaffna Municipal Council and the Batticaloa Municipal Council which we lost last time.”

What victory means to main parties
Despite all the good intentions of both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe how each side could maintain a ‘political ceasefire’ with defined ‘rules of engagement’ during the local polls remains a critical question. Each side would have to throw in what it has to win in what could easily turn out to be a battle for a vote of confidence. An overall victory for the SLFP will be interpreted, among other matters, as greater voter confidence now being place on it. Similarly, a UNP victory in most councils would be viewed as voters reiterating their confidence in the party. That will define the battle lines. During the parliamentary elections, President Sirisena did not take part in the campaign. A letter he issued on the eve of the elections referring to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a bone of contention. Some say it disheartened SLFP voters, others say it encouraged already disheartened supporters to come out and vote for the Rajapaksa-led SLFP at the time. There was relatively less pressure on different Government institutions, particularly the state run media at the time. How it will be during local polls, with the two sides in a National Government, becoming ‘political rivals’ at the polls remains to be seen. Some pressure will become an inevitable factor.

An even more significant factor in Sirisena leading SLFP’s local polls campaign is the move to altogether edge out his arch political rival Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is unlikely Rajapaksa would join the polls campaign. In leading the polls campaign, Sirisena is undertaking a challenge by staking his own position as the new party leader. A victory no doubt would come as a rejection of Rajapaksa by the electorate and deliver twin messages – one is the fact that he is now unassailable as the SLFP leader and the other is sounding a note of caution to the UNP that he now has the capability to go it alone. On the other, a defeat would turn out to be devastating. That will highlight the fact that political threats from Rajapaksa still remain and the UNP is also a formidable force to reckon with. All in all, that is a serious challenge to Sirisena. Though it is a local council election, it has national political significance in view of this.

There are a total of 335 local councils – Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban and Municipal Councils in Sri Lanka. Barring 23, the terms of all other councils have expired and they are now being administered by the Secretaries of the respective local bodies. The terms of the 23 councils, which were due to expire on October 31 (yesterday), have been extended till December 31. A writ application in the Court of Appeal prevented the conduct of elections to the Pradeshiya Sabhas in Puthukudiyiruppu and Maritimepattu, both in the Mullaitivu District. The complainants argued that demining and resettlement of those displaced after the separatist war were not complete.

Among the issues clouding the conduct of local polls next year are complaints over the demarcation of new wards. The UNP is making a case for a review in six districts where it is seeking a re-demarcation. However, Premier Wickremesinghe is planning to ensure a dialogue among stakeholders to arrive at an acceptable package. A feature ahead of the polls is a move by Wickremesinghe to introduce legislation in Parliament to provide for 25 per cent of the seats in the local bodies to be held by women. He said yesterday that legislation for the purpose was being prepared.

Elections, in terms of the Local Government Elections Act 2012, have to be held under a mixed system. Seventy percent are to be elected on the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system whilst 30 percent will be under Proportional Representation (PR). Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha is confident local polls could be conducted in March next year. “There is no need to postpone the polls,” he said yesterday. However, senior officials are sceptical of a poll even in March 2016.

Demarcation: New committee
This week, the Ministry of Local Government appointed a new five-member team to inquire into complaints over discrepancies in the demarcation of boundaries based on the report submitted by National Delimitation Commission (NDC). The Commission was headed by Jayalath Ravi Dissanayake. The NDC recommended an increase in the number of elected members to the councils by 595. According to its final report, the number of members to be elected under a ward-based system will increase to 5,081. (The earlier number was 4,486). The Commission’s final report was handed over to former Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya in June. Karunaratne Paranavithana, Deputy Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, said at Thursday’s weekly post-Cabinet news conference that it would take the Committee at least three months to come out with its report.

The latest committee is headed by former Land Commissioner-General Asoka Peiris, with four other members representing political parties: Attorney A.S.M. Misbah (UNP), K. Saliya (UPFA), Upul Kumaraperuma (JVP) and Former Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University, Professor B. Balasunderampillai (TNA). Their first meeting was held on Wednesday chaired by Minister Musthapha. They will look into the recommendations of the Delimitation Commission’s report on the demarcation of electoral boundaries in local government wards. They are due to submit a report within one month. Besides this, the Cabinet of Ministers has also named another Sub Committee headed by Minister Kabir Hashim to look into the same matter. One of the aspects the ministerial team is examining is the allegation that some wards have been carved out by the previous administration in such a way as to ensure that areas which were its main support bases were made into different wards. Any contemplated changes and the procedures involved would take more time.

Yet, the fact that local polls will be held next year is a certainty even if the target date is missed by weeks. What is unclear is whether there would be changes to the polls laws in the light of concerns expressed by political parties. Sirisena’s declaration on Thursday raises another important political issue — the future of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). His statement that he would lead the SLFP campaign seems to indicate that there would be no role for other partners in the alliance. “The UPFA is now a dead letter. Yet we have the support of some in the SLFP,” Mahajana Eksath Peramuna leader Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times. This, he said, includes the backing of those at the district and grassroots levels. He said discussions were going on to ascertain whether candidates could be fielded from the UPFA or a new grouping at the local polls.

Asked whether fielding candidates was to be under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, Gunawardena was non-committal. He said ‘it may or may not be’ and pointed out that he (Rajapaksa) had been a leader of the SLFP. He said UPFA parliamentarians including those from the SLFP who were supportive were now conducting ‘countrywide seminars’ where they were focusing on three different issues — the rising cost of living, the ‘deteriorating’ economic situation and the recently adopted UN Human Rights Council resolution that was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka. “The Executive Committee (of the UPFA) has not met since March. The General Secretary has left and that letter, as required, has not been tabled at the Committee. Nor has the appointment of a new General Secretary been approved by them.”

The dilemma of constituent parties of the UPFA barring the SLFP has been worsened by many factors. Even if the UPFA’s other parties choose to form a new front to contest local polls, there are issues they would have to overcome. Firstly, they would have to decide under which party they would field candidates since there would be no official recognition for a new group. Secondly, the degree of support they will receive from ‘dissidents’ within the SLFP also raises issues. Those concerned would no doubt be forced to act with caution lest they are dismissed from the party.

UNP’s economic vision
As for the UNP, Thursday’s presentation of the Medium Term Economic Strategy by Premier Wickremesinghe and the November 20 budget by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, party sources say, will have a favourable impact on the local polls. Several important measures are likely. Among them:

  • The withdrawal of the fertilizer subsidy. Instead, farmers are to be paid a subsidy by cash.
  • Lifting of the present ceiling on land ownership at fifty acres. This was introduced in 1972 by the then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. No limits are to be placed on extents.
  • Re-structuring of the economy with tax income at 15 per cent of the GDP.
  • Introduction of a Development Act in Parliament to streamline investment projects and provide greater opportunities for foreign investment. This will come under Malik Samarawickrema, Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade.

Government sources said that an announcement on the resumption of the Colombo Port City project and the development of stage two of the Hambantota Port development programme is now under consideration.

In the light of the upcoming local polls and moves to resuscitate the country’s economy, this month is the beginning of a crucial phase for the UNFGG. On the one hand, President Sirisena has placed himself on the electoral firing line at local polls and would have to win to prove he is in control of his party as well as the Government. On the other, the task before the UNP would be to deliver what was promised at Sirisena’s own Presidential election and the August parliamentary polls, at least some if not all. Therein lies its credibility and public confidence. Even more importantly, that will be its passport to win the local polls.

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