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Testing the waters for a General Election

"Capturing the Jaffna peninsular towards the end of 1995 was equal or more significant and may be more difficult than the capturing of the East by the same forces last year since the East is inhabited by all three communities- Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese- unlike the homogeneous Jaffna peninsula and the LTTE’s eastern force had broken away during the liberation of the East, from the outfit. However the then Government of Chandrika Kumaratunge did not attribute the war victories to the increased state expenditure."
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by M.S.M Ayub

(June 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Without any public indication that the Government was going to hold elections for the seven provincial councils other than the Northern Provincial council and the council in the East for which election was held on May 10, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) chairman Kingsley Rodrigo urged that the elections for all provincial councils be held simultaneously.

He must have sensed or got wind of the Government’s move to hold elections for the remaining seven provincial councils on a staggered basis.

Given the fact that the Government utilized all powers and privileges vested in the ministers and the members of parliament and provincial councils at the recently concluded Eastern Provincial Council election Rodrigo may have made this extremely reasonable request, but to no avail. Government has announced elections for two provincial councils to be held in August.

The selection of Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provincial Councils to be dissolved and to go for elections was attributed by the authorities to the spontaneous requests of the chief ministers of the two provincial councils. It was said that the Governors of the two provincial councils have dissolved the councils under their purview on the advice of the respective chief ministers, as specified by law.

In fact before that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had summoned the Chief Ministers of North Central Provincial Council and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council Berty Premalal Dissanayaka and Mahipala Herath and inquired as to whether they can run the councils smoothly since the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) did not have the majority in the councils . They had answered negatively. After the discussion the Governors dissolved the councils.

The very summoning of the two chief ministers indicates that it was not the chief ministers who decided on the dissolution. Although they did not command a majority support in their respective councils no chief minister would have wanted to go for premature elections given the uncertainty of winning a fresh election.

Last time in 2004 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led People’s Alliance headed by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunge contested at the provincial council elections under the new coalition-UPFA with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).Now that the JVP has fallen apart, most of the chief ministers might be fearing to face the election without the support of the JVP especially given the unprecedented sky rocketing prices of essential items.

Although there is no legal barrier for the Governors of the Provincial councils to dissolve their councils as ruled by the Supreme Court on June 20, there is also no provision for a chief minister, as argued by the UPFA to request dissolution of his council in the face of a lack of majority support for his party in the council. The constitution just specifies that the “Governor may dissolve the council” on the advice of the chief minister so long as the board of ministers commands in the opinion of the Governor, the support of the majority of the provincial council.”

That is the reason why the UNP and the JVP contended that without the majority support the chief minister of a provincial council cannot request the dissolution of the council. However what matters most here is the “opinion of the Governor” which cannot be contested under the law.

If the UPFA contends that the two provincial councils were dissolved due to the fact that the ruling party has no majority support in the council, the first step of the chief ministers should have been to resign from the posts and allow the Governor to find a person “who in his opinion, is best able to command the support of a majority of the members of the council.” But the stand of the UPFA has been that “either we or nobody” would rule the province.

This reminds us of the crisis following the elections for the seven provincial councils outside the North and the East in 1993 where the then United National Party rulers of the Central Government undemocratically attempted not to hand over the power to the combined larger opposition in the Southern and North Western Provincial Councils.

In both councils the UNP bagged the highest number of seats, but the combined opposition, the SLFP and the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) led by UNP dissident strongmen Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake commanded the majority support in the councils. After struggling to retain the power in the two councils for some time, the UNP ultimately caved in, and unlike the present scenario UNP Government did not advice the Governors to dissolve the councils on the ground that they did not have the majority support in the councils.

The North Central Provincial Council and the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council are not the only councils where the ruling party does not have the majority support. In fact following the split in the UPFA which comprised the PA and the JVP, ruling parties of many provincial councils lost the majority support.

For instance, the ruling UPFA of the Western Provincial Council lost in the voting last week on a motion against the Government in respect of the current economic situation.

In point of fact, UPFA was a coalition between the PA and the JVP under an agreement and following the breaking away of the JVP after President Chandrika Kumaratunge signed the Post- Tsunami Operational Mechanism Structure (P-TOMS) or the Joint Mechanism meant for the tsunami affected areas in the North and East in June 2005, UPFA was no more in a practical sense.

Government is apparently testing the waters in the face of, on the one hand, unprecedented economic hardships faced by the people and breaching of many promises enunciated in its own Mahinda Chinthanaya and on the other hand, the recent military victories in the East and in the Mannar sector in the North, before the next general election and Presidntial election.

Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Bandula Gunawardene who was the harshest critic of the UPFA’s economic policies when he was in the UNP ranks has many times recently admitted that the economic burden on the ordinary people was unbearable and that Government has no remedy.

The counterargument of the leaders of the Government against the scathing attacks by the opposition parties on the soaring prices has always been that the war victories take its toll on the economy. It is incomprehensible as to how the war victories could be gained by expending more public money. And the war has been going on for the past three decades and the security forces have been fighting the separatist rebels throughout the period. Also it was not only this Government that gained victories over the LTTE.

Capturing the Jaffna peninsular towards the end of 1995 was equal or more significant and may be more difficult than the capturing of the East by the same forces last year since the East is inhabited by all three communities- Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese- unlike the homogeneous Jaffna peninsula and the LTTE’s eastern force had broken away during the liberation of the East, from the outfit. However the then Government of Chandrika Kumaratunge did not attribute the war victories to the increased state expenditure.

However government must be appreciated for its admission that the monies paid by the people by way of exorbitant prices end up in the public coffers, a point that is impossible for a common man to comprehend. Government claims that these monies are spent on the war whereas the opposition accuses that they are misappropriated by way of corruption and waste by the leaders of the Government.

It is vital for the Government in this backdrop to test the waters before major elections and also arrange a strategy to encounter them successfully. It seems that the Government has by holding the elections for the two provincial councils taken the first step towards both objectives. The leaders of the UPFA are apparently planning to hold the provincial council election this year on a staggered basis rather than to hold them next year as scheduled according to the constitution.

Their calculation may be that all provincial councils would come under their purview if they are held in a phased manner and full strength of the party and the state apparatus is utilized. And at the second phase, they seem to assume, that they would be able to win a premature General Election, fresh from the provincial victories which would create a public wave towards the victors and pave the way for the UPFA to misuse in turn, all the provincial administrative machinery towards its advantage.

The next General Election will be so vital personally for President Mahinda Rajapaksa since it would serve as a stepping stone for the next Presidential Election in which Rajapaksa is supposed to contest for a second term. Therefore Government seems to expect a chain reaction from the two provincial elections to the next Presidential Election.


(From Daily Mirror)


- Sri Lanka Guardian

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