The National Unity Government was consolidated last week when the two major parties -- the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) -- worked together in a thrillingly secret way to get a two-thirds majority to pass the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Bill which the Speaker signing it into law last Friday. In terms of this law, the PC electoral system also will be changed with 50 per cent being elected on the first-past-the-post system and 50 per cent on proportional representation. The widely-criticised and more widely abused preferential voting system has been scrapped, thus adding to the progressive steps being implemented by the National Unity Government.
According to our sister paper The Sunday Times it was President Maithripala Sirisena who wished to have this legislation passed within 48 hours. Though in New York for the United Nations General Assembly session, he orchestrated the dramatic operation from there while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sealed and delivered it here. The Sunday Times Political Editor described the President as the man of the match, and the Premier as the best batsman. Speaking to journalists later, the Premier also used cricketing parlance saying catches win matches and the government needed to hold onto every catch. Government parliamentarians who were overseas or sick were told to rush back while Hirunika Premachandra came to vote after leaving her baby in the Premier’s Office.
In terms of the law, a high-powered delimitation committee will be set up to carve out the electorates in the provinces. Government leaders say the committee is expected to complete its task within four months though the earlier committee took more than five years and yet could not do a proper job. If the delimitation committee completes its mission by working effectively and on a 24/7 basis, the elections to the three PCs whose terms expire this year, are likely to be held by March. Meanwhile the long-delayed local council elections are likely to be held in January next year.
Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya is reported to be angry or upset that he was not consulted on this issue but has promised to cooperate. Going by the magnitude of the task of the carving out process, the Elections Chief has expressed doubts whether the PC polls could be held before the end of next year.
Whatever the positives or the negatives of the government’s extraordinary moves in Parliament last week, most analysts believe there is a valid case to hold all PC polls on the same day.
The Prime Minister recently submitted a Cabinet document outlining the enormous savings in financial and human resources if all PC polls are held on the same day. It was the former Rajapaksa regime which held PC polls on a staggered basis and we saw how human and financial resources of the State including the State media were abused and how they gave a distorted picture of the whole country’s thinking as we saw in the presidential election of January 2015. However the Supreme Court has ruled that holding PC polls on the same day under the proposed 20th Amendment would require not only a two-thirds majority in Parliament but also approval by the people at a referendum. Government leaders believe that holding a referendum is a complex issue and would take a long time.
Thus came the sudden and unexpected decision to move the PC Polls Amendment Bill and get it approved within two days. Local government and Provincial Councils Minister Faizer Musthapha is reported to have said the new law would restore the supremacy of Parliament as it is the highest representative body elected by the people. As promised by the National government the rule of the law and the independence of the judiciary have also been restored and so we are seeing democracy’s checks and balances at work in a dynamic way whatever happens at the PC Polls or whenever they are held.