It’s not just another punchi chandaya or ‘minor election.’ If the local government election has by default taken on a national character then it is due to the undue importance attached to it by a government that has clearly been fighting shy of facing the voter.
It is ‘national’ for other reasons. For example, the main political parties/coalition in the fray have named it as such. They’ve framed the election in ‘national’ terms. The major partners of the ruling coalition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have been forced into what could be called a mid-term assessment. They are contesting separately. There will obviously be claims and counterclaims, accusations and counter-accusations. It is not pretty and could get ugly if the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Central Bank bond issue affirms what is now common knowledge; complicity at the highest level.
It is a test for the JVP as well. The party lost its most energetic leaders to the Frontline Socialist Party and may not be able to persuade the voter to forget that it was in part responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is clearly taking pains to distance itself from the Yahapalana establishment it helped bring to power. The party is striving to shed its image as a tacit endorser of wrongdoing, having helped both parties into power at one time or another. The JVP campaign is about putting a stop to corruption. That’s a national issue and not a ‘village’ issue.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is the political front of the joint opposition, is looking beyond the local government election, which it probably views as a stepping stone to an electoral triumph at the national level.
So, for all the village-rhetoric in this country where the distinction between village and city is blurred, this election has very little to do with local issues.
The ‘national’ element is read variously by the different political formations. For Maithripala Sirisena and the SLFP the election result will indicate the nature of what the political future holds. The UNP will have to win much more than a simple majority of councils to paint itself as the best option come 2020. Ruling parties/coalitions have in the past swept the vast majority of councils. A ‘little over 50%’ would be read as a decline. Correspondingly a close second place would give the SLPP a massive fillip. Indeed, pushing the SLFP into third place may very well result in that party obtaining greater control of SLFPers both in and out of Parliament. If they end up on top, that would be the beginning of the end of the present regime.
It is a test for the JVP as well. The party lost its most energetic leaders to the Frontline Socialist Party and may not be able to persuade the voter to forget that it was in part responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country.
The results will have implications for the parties, then. What of the voter?
This election, we can’t insist enough, is not about the ‘local’. Local government elections were hardly ever about anything local. They have essentially been exercises where winners secure bragging rights that can be invested in other elections. The elected have typically graduated from local council to provincial council to parliament and the cabinet. The village never got anything. The village was pillaged and the pillaging was done in the name of ‘the village and the villager’.
It’s a national election, then. And if it is a national election, then at least let us try to infuse ‘nation’ and ‘national’ with something of value greater than the political fortunes of political parties. Let us keep it ‘national’ while keeping the issue ‘local’. In other words, let’s just drop things such as transparency, accountability, democracy, good governance, etc., which we know none of these parties are serious about. Let’s go instead for something tangible. Like Wilpattu.
The Auditor General’s report on the protected forest in Vilaittikulam clearly indicates wrongdoing. The issue is deforestation for settlement. The issue has been unnecessarily and unfortunately given a communal colour by two facts. One, the leader of a communalist party has been at the forefront of settling people belonging almost exclusively to the community he is a member of. Secondly, among the first objectors were a group that has had violent confrontations with this same community.
There were claims that the ‘settlers’ were in fact being returned to their ‘ancestral lands’. That claim has been proven to be false. It is encroachment in broad daylight. It is deforestation in broad daylight. The minister and the relevant officials are all guilty of this crime.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is the political front of the joint opposition, is looking beyond the local government election, which it probably views as a stepping stone to an electoral triumph at the national level
The ‘national’ issue then is this: what do the major parties have to say about Wilpattu and what has happened? What do they advocate now?
We need to understand that ‘Wilpattu’ in the sense the term is used here is not a forest reserve located in the North Western Province. Wilpattu is every forest under threat of encroachment; Wilpattu is every tree that is marked for felling; Wilpattu is every creature whose habitat has been threatened by deforestation, development and human settlement; Wilpattu is the oxygen we breathe and take for granted; Wilpattu is the climate change we ought to have foreseen, did not and suffered as a result; Wilpattu is the nation. Wilpattu is the nation and it is also the local. It is the national question of our time and the time of generations yet to come.
If local government elections are to be ‘national’ then so be it. Let it be about Wilpattu. It is far more relevant and far more righteous than anything that any political party has dished out to the voter as ‘reasons for support.’ They will no doubt ignore Wilpattu and if pushed will probably offer convoluted arguments such as ‘Where’s Wilpattu and where’s Akkaraipattu? Where’s Wilpattu and where’s Koralepattu? Where’s Wilpattu and where’s Harispattu?’ It’s up to the voter, then, to say ‘No, it’s right here where I am, where you are, and where we all will or will not be a few years from now!’
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org.