Uncertainty looms over the conduct of the Local Council Elections in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the acute economic crisis crippling the island nation. The country’s Election Commission (EC) recently moved the poll dates from the earlier March 9 to April 25 after facing a fund crunch to print ballot papers.
Making the announcement in a statement on March 7, the EC said the postal voting for the Local Council Elections would be held from March 28 to 31. The EC said it cannot hold the election as scheduled on March 9 due to an issue related to the printing of ballot papers and other “unexpected and unavoidable problems” that arose regarding facilities needed for conducting the poll.
More than 16.6 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots to elect 8,711 members to 340 local councils in the election. While the government says that it doesn’t have enough funds to hold the elections due to the country’s crippling economic crisis, Opposition parties point out that Rs 10 billion was allocated in the 2023 Budget for the independent EC to hold the local elections.
Why Treasury refused money to EC
The EC had announced the earlier poll date of March 9 in January this year, assuming that it would get the necessary funds for the elections as the Parliament had already passed the Budget allocations for the same. The Treasury, however, released only a fraction of the funds requested by the commission for poll-related work. Postal voting for the election was due to take place on February 22, 23 and 24 but had to be postponed after the Government Printer refused to print ballot papers due to the non-payment of bills by the EC.
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The situation is unprecedented, EC officials have pointed out. Most bills related to election work are settled after the conclusion of the election. On this occasion, though, the Government Printer decided to stop printing postal ballots halfway, citing non-payment of bills. Government Printer Gangani Liyanage claimed her hands were tied by a recent Treasury circular, instructing officials not to do work on credit.
On February 17, the secretary to the Ministry of Finance officially informed the EC that providing funds for the election will be difficult due to the current financial situation.
EC vs President Wickremesinghe
As the finance portfolio is handled by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, opposition parties have accused him of putting pressure on the finance secretary to withhold funds requested by the EC.
Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, dropped a bombshell while addressing the Parliament on February 23. He told MPs that “the election has not been postponed because there is no election to be postponed.” The President claimed that there was no quorum on the day when the Election Commission met to decide on the poll date. According to the Constitution, a quorum of three members is required for any meeting of the commission.
Wickremesinghe claimed that when the Commission met to decide on the election date, only two members, including the chairman, were present while the consent of the other three was obtained later via Zoom call. He also claimed that he had “proof” that three members of the commission did not give their approval to the date as the chairman claims. As such, no decision has been officially taken to declare the election, the president alleged.
Both opposition parties and election monitoring groups dismissed Wickremesinghe’s claims, while EC Chairman Nimal Punchihewa hit back, telling the media that the election was announced legally as per the Constitution and the law.
‘Finance Secretary Siriwardana plays elusive’
Rival petitions related to the polls are also being taken up by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court. A petition filed by a retired army colonel asking the court to stay the election, given the country’s economic crisis was recently postponed till May. On March 3, a separate Supreme Court bench, however, issued an interim order to the Secretary of the Finance Ministry and the Attorney General, preventing them from withholding funds earmarked for the local council election. The order was issued in response to a fundamental rights petition filed by Ranjith Madduma Bandara, the general secretary of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.
On March 7, the EC met officials from senior government agencies directly involved in the election. These included the Government Printer and the Inspector General of Police. Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, however, was absent. He had notified the EC that he would be unable to attend the meeting as his presence was required at a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by the President.
In a meeting with the EC later, representatives of opposition parties expressed disappointment over Siriwardana’s absence at the earlier meeting. “We explained to the EC that there was no point in them begging the Treasury to release funds when the Supreme Court has given a clear order prohibiting the Treasury Secretary from withholding funds for the election. It is now up to the commission to act using the powers it has been given,” SJB general secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara told The Federal.
He said they would petition the Supreme Court again to hold the Treasury Secretary in contempt if he continued to withhold funds for the election. The Commission should also do the same, Bandara added.
‘Government may appoint new EC’
He also addressed the possibility of the government moving to replace the current EC and reconstitute it with new members. Under the recently passed 21st Amendment to the Constitution, a 10-member Constitutional Council is the authority tasked with recommending members to the country’s independent commissions. The council recently called for applications from the public to serve on the commissions. Since the local council election process is underway, opposition parties have urged the council refrain from appointing a new EC until the conclusion of the election. The government, however, has dismissed the request.
Any move to appoint a new commission while the electoral process is under process would be undemocratic, Bandara said.
Police action against protesters
The SJB and other opposition parties have also taken to the streets in protest against the delay in conduct of elections. Protests have been held in many parts of the island, denouncing alleged attempts by the government to postpone the election and demanding it to provide the necessary support to the Election Commission to conduct the poll.
Protesters have accused the government of using police force to quell some of the largest agitations against it. On February 27, police fired tear gas and used water cannons on a large demonstration in the heart of Colombo organised by the National People’s Power (NPP) – a coalition led by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Nearly 30 persons were injured. One of them, 61-year-old Nimal Amarasiri, who was an NPP candidate for the upcoming polls, died in hospital the following day. JVP and NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said he holds the government directly responsible for Amarasiri’s death.
NPP set to make significant gains
The NPP is expected to make significant gains at the local council elections due to a large section of voters looking to back a “third force” after becoming disillusioned with both the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Premadasa-led SJB.
On the ground, the party’s campaign is underway despite uncertainties over the elections. Its meetings have been attracting large crowds. Nevertheless, it is difficult for the campaign to carry on the same momentum, now that the election date had been pushed back by more than six weeks, conceded Sunil Handunnetti, a former Parliamentarian who is contesting for the local council election. “However, with postal voting due to be held at the end of March, we are starting to hold large-scale meetings again,” he said.
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Handunnetti said he did not believe the government had any other choice but to let the EC conduct the election. He, however, asserted that the commission needs to act decisively. “If the conduct of officials such as the Treasury Secretary has humiliated the commission, it is incumbent upon the commission to take action against them,” he said.
The election will be the first island-wide polls since former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ousted and Ranil Wickremesinghe was installed in his place by Parliament. Usually, local council elections don’t attract as much voter interest compared to other island-wide elections. Given events over the past year though, voter interest has been extremely high. This means that there is a lot at stake for all the major political parties.
Stakes go up for Wickremesinghe
The stakes are especially high for President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP government he heads. Opposition parties have continually pointed out that he was elected by a majority vote in Parliament and not by the people’s mandate. In fact, Wickremesinghe lost his seat in his stronghold of Central Colombo during the last parliamentary election in 2020. He only came to Parliament after being nominated by his United National Party (UNP) to fill the sole seat it managed to win. As such, he has consistently come under attack for being a President who never had a popular mandate to govern.
Opposition parties have also stressed that the current Parliament, where the Rajapaksa-led SLPP still holds a majority, does not reflect the situation on the ground, where the SLPP’s popularity has plunged drastically over the past two and a half years.