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Sri Lanka Government Develops Cold Feet, Calls Off Local Elections

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Sri Lanka Government Develops Cold Feet, Calls Off Local Elections

Fearing that it will be routed in elections, the ruling party unleashed a propaganda campaign to convince people that elections amid the economic crisis are a bad idea.

Sri Lanka Government Develops Cold Feet, Calls Off Local Elections

Supporters of Sri Lanka’s main opposition shout slogans after police stopped their march to protest against the postponement of local government election in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

On February 20, Sri Lanka’s Election Commission told the Supreme Court that it will not be able to hold the local council election on March 9 as planned due to the non-availability of funds. This follows an announcement on February 17 that postal voting for the much-anticipated local government election had been postponed indefinitely.  The postal voting was scheduled to be held on February 22, 23, 24, and 28.

Although the announcement was met with dismay by most of the political parties and people, the deferring of elections was not unexpected, given that the government and its allies had come up with at least 20 ploys to put it off.

The local government elections, which are supposed to be held every four years, were last held in 2018. In 2022, the State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs issued a gazette announcing that the tenure of the councils was extended by another year. No reason was given for the extension.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-backed government, associated with the worst economic crisis Sri Lanka has ever faced, is expected to face a crushing defeat at the local council election. Therefore, the government has been attempting to postpone the election, through several constitutional and unconstitutional methods, until they receive the IMF bailout package of $2.9 billion. The government believes that this funding, along with the expected bridging finance could be used to stabilize the economy and that an election should be held at a more favorable time.

Even before the Elections Commission announced plans to hold the election on March 9, the government had unleashed a propaganda campaign to convince the people that holding elections at this juncture was a bad idea.

Soon after the election was announced the state propaganda machine, as well as their allies in the private sector, unleashed several campaigns to undermine the Election Commission as well as to convince the people that holding elections at this juncture would be disastrous financially. A retired military officer filed a case against holding the local council elections. The Cabinet of Ministers even went as far as to instruct district secretaries, through a letter sent by the secretary to the Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs, not to accept deposits for local council elections. The letter was withdrawn following public outrage.

It is estimated that the election would cost $27 million. Despite repeated requests by the Elections Commission, the Ministry of Finance did not release the necessary funding.

Fearing that the government will prevent elections from taking place by not releasing funds, the opposition parties went to court urging it to order the Elections Commission to hold local council elections. The Supreme Court said there was no need to give such an order after the Elections Commission informed the courts that “it was prepared to hold the elections.” The decision was welcomed with jubilation by the opposition.

However, a few days later the Elections Commission had to announce it will have to postpone elections as the Government Printer, Gangani Liyanage, informed that the ballot papers needed can’t be printed without payment upfront. This has not been the practice before, and elections monitors have placed the blame for these obstructions directly on the government. More methods used by the government to undermine elections can be found here and here.

Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES) Manjula Gajanayake told The Diplomat that no country has postponed elections under the pretext that there is no money in the treasury. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has blatantly attempted to influence the Elections Commission, which is an independent commission, as well as to spread false propaganda about divisions among commissioners, Gajanayake said. Given that the president has said that elections will not be held until the Sri Lankan economy is stabilized, it is unlikely that the government will provide the necessary funding unless mass protests compel them to.

Why is the government trying so hard to delay elections? The most obvious reason is that it would suffer a massive defeat and that would delegitimize its existence. It won’t be able to carry out its IMF-approved program. This in turn would mean that they will not receive the IMF bailout that they are desperate to have. No political party wants to face that fate.

However, there is a second reason. There is a very real possibility that elections would mean the end of the two-party-dominated governance of the country.

Sri Lanka has been governed by two main political parties since independence: the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Samagi Jana Balawaegaya (SJB), the two main political parties in the present Parliament, are splinter groups of the UNP and SLFP, a mere change of names.

While once there were ideological differences between the two camps, there are virtually no such differences between the two sides now. Both sides are close to powerful movers and shakers. Moreover, they have shown they will not take any action against each other despite making allegations of corruption at each other. For example, in late 2018, former President Maithripala Sirisena replaced Ranil Wickremesinghe, then the prime minister, with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man he had accused in 2015 of monumental corruption. In 2022, the Rajapaksa family-led SLPP elected Wickremesinghe as president, despite accusing him of being a traitor and a key perpetrator of the Bond Scam.

An increasing number of Sri Lankans, especially the youth, seem to believe that the time has come for radical change and have found an alternative in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP). As it is, the NPP is expected to get the highest votes in the local government election, when it is held.

Allegations of corruption against JVP leaders are rare. Since they have never held power, they do not have deep ties with powerful interest groups. There are also expectations that the NPP might actually punish those involved in corruption.

As Jayadeva Uyangoda, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Colombo, pointed out that local council elections are a “major threat to the ruling class.” All the more reason to delay elections until the ruling class believes that they can go back to business as usual.