The Government, the Opposition or the people?
Normally, a ruling alliance is never hesitant to conduct a local authorities’ election. Going by past experience, such elections have always been advantageous to the party in power. In fact, it had been clean sweeps for the ruling side. For the first time perhaps, the next local authorities’ election, which is overdue, has assumed a new significance, a phenomenon not witnessed in politics before. The National Unity Government formed between PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and President Maitripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has not yet confirmed in clear-cut terms whether the election will be conducted this year, albeit piecemeal references, sometimes contradictory, made by some ministers at press conferences.
irst, President Sirsena announced he would give leadership to the SLFP at the next election to ensure its victory. It meant the UNP and the SLFP would be pitted against each other at the local authorities’ level notwithstanding they were part of a formal combination in the central administration of the country.
Riddled with internal squabbles in the SLFP, according to sources close to him, the President does not sound keen to conduct the election this year and that this situation had arisen after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took certain decisions indicative of forming a new party. Any such move will divide the SLFP vote base making the party’s success at the local government election uncertain. So, the present SLFP hierarchy might be having second thoughts of going for an election this year.
The next election is significant to voters in yet another area. According to the provisions of the 19th Amendment incorporated in the Constitution, a parliamentary election cannot be conducted for four years. It is a radical departure from the past procedure in which the Executive President could dissolve Parliament even after one year of its establishment and call for a snap election. This constitutional provision was usurped in 2004 to dissolve the then UNP government just after two years. At the subsequent election, the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was elected.
"Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took certain decisions indicative of forming a new party. Any such move will divide the SLFP vote base making the party’s success at the local government election uncertain. So, the present SLFP hierarchy might be having second thoughts of going for an election this year The next election is significant to voters in yet another area. According to the provisions of the 19th Amendment incorporated in the Constitution, a parliamentary election cannot be conducted for four years"
Subsequently, the upcoming local authorities’ election would be the first opportunity to voters to express their contentment or discontentment with the UNP/SLFP government’s performance.
Political parties and other associations, critical of the government’s policies, have stepped up action to prevail upon the ruling side to conduct the local government election as early as possible. The joint opposition, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, has even petitioned the Supreme Court in this regard, on the basis that the delay is an affront to the franchise of the people. This an exceptional phenomenon where the party led by the Head of State is oscillating in conducting an election.
The delay is sometimes attributed to the reality that time is needed to rectify anomalies in the creation of electoral wards under the new system, a mix of the First Past the Post System and the Proportional Representation System. A committee headed by Asoka Peiris is working on it at the moment. But, critics say the delay is inordinate despite the work involved. In the meantime, the UNP says it does not have an iota of fear in conducting the election at any time, but that the anomalies of ward creations should be corrected. The party has also beefed up its efforts to reorganise its grassroots mechanism in anticipation of a local election at any time.
"The upcoming local authorities’ election would be the first opportunity to voters to express their contentment or discontentment with the UNP/SLFP government’s performance"
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who holds sway in the present SLFP affairs invited Rural Industries Minister P. Harrison recently to address certain issues at the Veyangoda Economic Centre. Afterwards she hosted the minister and his officials for tea at her ancestral residence ‘Horagolla Walawwa’. Harrison, for the first time as an UNP MP, participated at a tea party with Chandrika Kumaratunga at the Horagolla Walawwa which is virtually the ancestral home of the SLFP founded by her father the late S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. They had chatted leisurely over a number of matters concerning current politics. Kumaratunga had been critical of Rajapaksa but had hailed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as a ‘genuine character’.
She is reported to have said that Mahinda Rajapaksa was trying to intimidate the present SLFP leadership to submission by vowing to establish a new political front. She had also said that Rajapaksa was doing this only to stall the investigations against him and members of his family. However, sources close to Rajapaksa said a newspaper advertisement would be placed within the next couple of weeks asking people to make submissions on the make-up of the new party.
Alongside, the Rajapaksa camp has started making efforts to capture the power of the SLFP as well. It is now a two-fold exercise; forming a new party and wresting control of the SLFP. Some seniors loyal to Rajapaksa are also not in favour of creating a new party. Instead, they want to remain with the SLFP and gain its control.
Last Saturday, Rajapaksa hosted members who served him earlier but not elected this time for lunch. A host of members including actress turned politician Upeksha Swarnamali attended the lunch at a hotel in Thalawathugoda.
"For the new government, it is now a crucial task to balance the strategic interests of India and China in the Indian Ocean"
The Sino- Lanka relations were strained perhaps for the first time after the suspension of the port city project, a Chinese real estate investment, to claim 233 hectares of land from the sea next the Colombo commercial port. However, the government now looks to rebuild its relations with China. The Prime Minister is to undertake a visit to China on April 7. Ahead of that, Strategic Development and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama will head for China on February 29. He is to be accompanied by Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake.
The minister is to initiate preparations for the Prime Minister’s visit. Alongside, he said he would discuss numerous other matters including those pertaining to the commencement of the Colombo port City project suspended since March, 2015 and the setting up of an economic zone in Hambantota. He had also said the government would agree to proceed with the port city project, conditional to the amendment of the original agreement signed. That is to reduce the extent of land to be reclaimed, and to stop giving any part of it on a freehold basis to the Chinese investor.
These seem to be fundamental changes to the original agreement. However, it is not yet clear whether the Chinese side will be amenable to the proposal made by the Sri Lankan government.
"Riddled with internal squabbles in the SLFP, according to sources close to him, the President does not sound keen to conduct the election this year"
The previous rule elevated Sino- Lanka relations to a ‘strategic partnership cooperation’. At that time India was perturbed over the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian authorities were, in fact, opposed to the port city project, particularly due to the clause for granting 20 hectares of land on freehold basis to China after reclaiming it from the sea. India has conveyed its concerns to the Sri Lankan authorities, then and also later.
So, for the new government, it is now a crucial task to balance the strategic interests of India and China in the Indian Ocean in giving the nod for the resumption of the port city project. Both are growing economic power houses in the world today, offering immense potential that could be tapped by Sri Lanka.
The Ilankai Tamil Arachu Katchi (ITAK) is the dominant ally of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, it is learnt that some other allies are concerned over the move by ITAK to lure some of their members to its fold. It is learnt that Selvam Adaikkalanathan, the leader of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), was critical of the ITAK leadership in this regard at a recent meeting.