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Corrective governmental action can be expected in New Year

by Jehan Perera

(December 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)  The government has still not passed the local government elections amendment bill that it introduced over two months ago. This is not in character with the Rajapaksa government that usually forges ahead with its plans regardless of opposition. This was seen in the last phase of the war and in the passage of the 18th Amendment.

The local government amendment bill was in keeping with the government’s tendency to concentrate more and more power in itself. The replacement of the existing proportional representation system of local government elections with the first-past-the-post system could have enhanced the government’s victory margins at the local government elections which are expected early next year. However, the government is now giving indications that it will conduct the local government elections under the existing proportional representation system, which is particularly helpful to the smaller parties and reduces the margin of victory.

The public reason being given for the delay in the implementation of the local government elections amendment bill is that there is not enough time for the re-demarcation of electorates to be done and for the new system to be made operational. But it has also been reported that government politicians at the local level have expressed concern that they may not do well in direct face-to-face competition in small electorates that the first-past-the-post system of elections makes necessary due to their failure to cater to the grassroots level needs of their electorates.

The decision to delay the implementation of the new local government election law is a sign that the government may be having concerns about its continuing hold on the electorate. Usually local government elections are won easily by the parties that are members of the government in power. This is because the electorate is aware that their local authorities will probably not have adequate resources to function if they are in opposition to the government. One of the problems of local government in Sri Lanka is the very limited nature of powers given to local authorities to raise their own funds by way of taxation.

Recently the government took away the power of the Provincial Councils to generate their own revenues through the Business Turnover Tax. Economic hardships There could be occasions when the electorate becomes determined to send a message to the government that they are not satisfied with its performance.

Local government elections are expected to focus on local level concerns of the electorate. This would mean that issues such as jobs, cost of living and access to governmental resources will take precedence over national issues such as post war reconstruction, international relations and the still unresolved ethnic conflict. The government’s claim is that the country is progressing on both these tracks under its leadership.

But the reality seems to be quite different. Where national issues are concerned the government has long shown, from the days of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, that it has the ability to attack political opponents as being anti-national and to discredit them in the eyes of the electorate. During the war the government was able to mobilize the readiness of the people to make greater and greater sacrifices for the sake of a final victory in the military campaign.

After the war, the Rajapaksa government has been able to maintain its unprecedented hold over the hearts and minds of the electorate by pointing to continuing threats coming from out of Sri Lanka, coming in the form of the International Human Rights movement and to the Tamil Diaspora. However, the situation at the local level where people live, and have to support their families to live, is that making ends meet is an increasingly difficult task.

The rise in the cost of living has been outstripping salary increases for most of the past two decades. With the exception of big companies traded on the stock market, and those companies that are beneficiaries of government largesse, the rest of the business community seems to be experiencing great financial hardship.

Whether it was the wholesale traders of Pettah, the retail business shops of Maharagama or the barber saloons of Thimbirigasyaya, whom I had dealings with during the holiday season, the common complaint was that people do not have the money to spend and so business is slack. Denying Reality So far, in public debates, the government has not been prepared to accept that the economy is in trouble and large sections of the population are economically worse off than they were in previous years.

The government puts out a regular flow of official figures and statistics that show record levels of economic growth, production and inflow of foreign exchange. In addition the government insists that its efforts at resettlement of the war displaced and reconstruction of the north and east of the country is exemplary. Due to the faith that people put in the words of their government leaders this is also the dominant view in the country. The problem with a denial of reality is that it prevents the soul searching, introspection and self-critical changes that are necessary to improve any existing situation. Those who are not willing to accept that problems exist will also not be seeking solutions to them.

Sections of the government deny that there is an economic problem and claim that the economy is literally booming. Similarly there are sections of the government who deny that there is an unresolved ethnic conflict in the country. Instead they claim that with the end of the war there is inter-ethnic harmony, and dismiss the anti government actions of the Tamil Diaspora as being part of an international conspiracy to unseat a patriotic government. It is often the case that those who deny there is a problem are setting themselves up for a fall.

The government’s concern with regard to the forthcoming local government elections is a pointer that the government is aware of the problems it faces. While the propaganda arms of the government may claim that everything is well with the country, the political arm of the government appear to be aware of the possibility of an electoral reversal. Corrective Action is therefore on the cards and the New Year will show what they are. The influential Indian political commentator Kuldip Nayar has written that Sri Lanka is going on the wrong path.

This is on account of his observations of the government’s failure to arrive a political accommodation with the ethnic minorities that gives them a due place in the governance of the country. His other observation relates to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, and the government’s close relationship to China and Pakistan, which could prove detrimental to India.

However, there are many other issues that require the government’s attention if the country is to benefit fully from the end of the war. In the coming year, it is to be hoped that Sri Lanka will take the path of consensus building and development.

There is a huge peace dividend that waits to be claimed that could transform the economic life of the people. This could put the country in a position to devote more of its resources to compensate and rebuild the lives of its people, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim, who have suffered from the failure of successive governments to provide them with a safe and law abiding environment in which they and their children could live. The resettlement of all the war displaced and ascertaining the fate of all who went missing can be done to heal the wounds of the past and make Sri Lanka a positive model for the world rather than a negative one.

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