Without much ado, the Government appears on the verge of postponing the elections to the 340 municipal, urban and smaller local councils whose terms would lapse in April next year. They will be given an extended one year by powers vested with the minister in charge. There’s hardly a whimper of protest from the Opposition. [...]


Postponement of polls: Democracy’s red flag


Without much ado, the Government appears on the verge of postponing the elections to the 340 municipal, urban and smaller local councils whose terms would lapse in April next year. They will be given an extended one year by powers vested with the minister in charge. There’s hardly a whimper of protest from the Opposition. Nobody seems that keen on elections — or the elected.

At least, the Government has not planned to dissolve these elected bodies and appoint Special Commissioners as was done on occasion in the past. That had its merits and demerits, depending on the appointee. But it went against the grain of democracy and elected representation of the people.

The recent Budget was a forerunner to this move when the Finance Minister, who is also the main strategist of the ruling coalition, announced the disbursement of funds for next year. He allocated Rs. 19 billion to be shared by local councillors, irrespective of party links – though most of the councils are already in the hands of the ruling parties. Rs. 42 billion at the rate of Rs. 3 million each was also allocated to the Grama Sevaka Divisions to be spent in each village in consultation with the local community.

However unpopular the Government is today, the occasional call for elections is a voice in the wilderness. The people seem to have had enough of it, at least at this point in time. Billions are spent on electing those who promise the moon and all the masses get in return is ‘jack squat’. The Government appears in no mood to test the waters over its plummeting popularity and its much vaunted 6.9 million votes. They need to buy time in the hope that the state of the economy will only get better, not worse in the coming year. The Opposition might merely want an election at the grassroots level to energise its campaign for the big push come the 2024 Presidential pick.

In this backdrop, despite all the brouhaha over the long postponed Provincial Council elections, and the whole world waiting for amendments to the Election Laws to hold them, the Government is clearly not prepared to risk one either. This is also not a bad thing because what is needed is not electoral reforms but devolution reforms and a complete rewiring of the Provincial Council system which another country wants more than this country.

Whatever the ground realities, and justifications, postponing elections to elected bodies is per se bad, and given this Government’s mindset, as perceived not only in parts of the western world, but locally as well, such a course of action is a red flag. The US has snubbed Sri Lanka and lumped it with Afghanistan from South Asia to be left out from a virtual summit on “Democracy” under the auspices of the White House. In the UK, a report from its Foreign & Commonwealth Office refers to a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka and warns of trends towards a worsening situation. Locally, the 20th Amendment and all its ramifications is the bugbear.

Fertiliser policy: U-turn to middle path

One of the things a Government and the Media have in common could well be their reluctance to readily admit a mistake. It involves the issue of credibility. And so, the Government would rather not say it made an utter hash of its policy to ban the import of chemical fertiliser — overnight.

There is an old local idiom that it is okay to trip and fall down, but one must ensure that your pride is maintained by not allowing sand to rub into your moustache. The Agriculture Minister seems to be experiencing this right now with the U-turn on the ban, which the Government insists is not a U-turn.

Already ridiculed for publicly stating that he will not import “a grain of rice” only to import 100,000 metric tonnes of it as a rice shortage loomed in the face of the fertiliser ban, he appears to be qualifying for an honorary President’s Counselship for defending a bad brief. Or has he begun believing his own lies? Either way, the more he talks, the more he contradicts himself. Having to be His Master’s Voice is bad enough, he is in the enviable position of being the scapegoat for a policy gone terribly wrong.

At the beginning of the week, reality eventually dawned on the Government hierarchy that a reversal of its hara-kiri style approach was needed. Cabinet Ministers and Government Parliamentary Group members, especially those from the agricultural areas felt the heat from the farmers in their constituencies the most. In India, farmers had successfully carried out a protracted campaign against farm laws by the Government. The shadow of that battle was falling over Sri Lanka as well.

The President blamed the weather for crop failures. Public servants under a gag order from criticising Government policy on social media platforms were also blamed and told to leave their posts and get out of the way if they couldn’t agree with Government policy.

Everyone, and everything, was to blame except the decision-making which was devoid of the views to the contrary from senior tea planters, seasoned peasant-farmers, soil scientists and agricultural experts.

The spectre of an impending food scarcity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages of gas, milk foods, petrol and foreign exchange would almost certainly have been the last straw for the Government. There was no ‘Plan B’ in place in the event the ban flopped. Social experimenting is a dangerous exercise when so many other irons are in the fire.

The Government taking a step back even at this late stage is creditable. Even in war, a strategic withdrawal is not a bad move if the ultimate objective is to win it. Any military strategist knows that. Revolutions are meant to upturn the entire status quo and usher in a new social order. But in this ‘Green Revolution’ that is envisaged, it should be a case of going back to the drawing board, meeting with the experts and the experienced, and planning how best to implement such a vision.

As a minister who supports the conversion to organic fertiliser but in a phased out fashion correctly pointed out, even the Buddha went in search of the Truth in one direction, found out it was not the way to salvation, conceded he went wrong, and came up with the ‘Middle Path’ doctrine.

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