Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe is facing mounting pressure from the political Opposition and civil society over his government’s apparent attempts to postpone local government polls, scheduled in early March, citing the lack of funds.
Earlier this year, the island nation’s Election Commission announced that the local body elections will be held on March 9, 2023, giving citizens an opportunity to exercise their franchise for the first time since mass protests booted out the former Rajapaksa regime during last year’s unprecedented economic crisis. However, Mr. Wickremesinghe — elected to the country’s top office in July 2022, through an urgent parliamentary vote with legislators from the Rajapaksas’ party backing him — recently indicated in a public address that the country would be able to go to polls next year, following its economic recovery.
Senior officials from the Finance Ministry and Treasury maintain that the country, reeling under a crushing financial meltdown, lacks the finances to hold polls that are estimated to cost LKR 10 billion. While Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on the issue later this week, the likely postponement of polls has sparked sharp criticism from Mr. Wickremesinghe’s political rivals and members of Sri Lanka’s civil society.
On Monday, a magistrate court in Colombo issued an order preventing the main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Force) MPs from holding a protest demanding the conduct of the scheduled polls. The leftist JVP-led National People’s Power, also in Opposition, has threatened legal action and protests, should elections be put off. The Freedom People’s Alliance, a grouping of defectors from the Rajapaksa camp, recently wrote to Colombo-based diplomats seeking their intervention in ensuring the timely conduct of elections.
‘Attack on democracy’
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka [BASL], a professional body of lawyers, noted that several decisions taken by the government in recent weeks, “purportedly aimed at managing public funds”, are effectively aimed at preventing the Election Commission from holding polls. Following a recent circular from the Ministry of Finance, which is also helmed by President Wickremesinghe, limiting disbursement of funds to “essential services”, the Treasury Secretary informed the Election Commission of the difficulty in mobilising necessary funds to hold elections. The Government Printer, too, informed the Commission that it was unable to print ballot papers without the required funds.
In its statement the BASL contended that the conduct of the government officials and institutions “clearly demonstrates a concerted effort to bring the elections to a halt, thus undermining the franchise of the people and endangering the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka.” “Such attempts to prevent elections mandated by law represent an unprecedented attack on democracy and the rule of law and pose a grave threat to the electoral process in the future…such actions could set a dangerous precedent for an unpopular executive or legislature to obstruct the allocation of resources for an election and prevent the people of Sri Lanka from choosing their representatives and leaders,” the lawyers body warned.
A recent poll on the ‘Mood of the nation’ conducted by Colombo-based Verité Research showed that the Wickremesinghe government continued to have a poor, merely 10% approval rating among the public. While a local body election may not immediately impact national politics, those in Sri Lanka pushing for its conduct see it as a barometer of public sentiment, in the wake of persisting economic distress and growing concern among critics about the shrinking space for dissent.
Prominent Sri Lankan scholars and activists said that the “mismanagement of the political front by undermining the democratic process can only deepen political instability” and in turn, “adversely impact” the country’s economic recovery. “Holding the local government elections and allowing the citizen’s protests will even function as a crucial pressure valve, enabling the people of Sri Lanka to peacefully release their anger and outrage caused by the mounting economic hardships,” the academicians and rights defenders observed in a recent joint statement. They demanded that the President and the government “refrain from acting in a manner that subverts the legally mandated and constitutionally valid local government election scheduled by the Election Commission.”
The last local body polls, held in February 2018, marked the political comeback of the Rajapaksas, who went on to win big in the presidential and parliamentary elections that followed in 2019 and 2020.
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