Wednesday, 15 February 2023 06:06

A Further Erosion Of Moral Legitimacy With Blocking Elections - Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere was Solomon-like wisdom in the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the local government election cases that came before it. The first case it took up was brought before it by opposition parties who are concerned that the government is doing its utmost to prevent those elections. The Election Commission has been under severe pressure from the government to call off or postpone those elections. One of the key opposition leaders Prof G L Peiris has outlined the multiple ways in which the government has made its attempts, including the unacceptable one of claiming not to have enough money to hold elections. But the Election Commission has stood firm and declared March 9 to be the date of the elections and set the election process in motion. In its judgment the Supreme Court stated that the Election Commission had undertaken to conduct those elections, and as they were the proper authority, there was no need for the court to intervene further.

In the second case, in which a petitioner has argued that economic conditions in the country do not permit an election at this time, the court accepted the objections that the petitioner had not met the necessary legal formalities and postponed hearing the case until February 23. The election process would have moved ahead significantly by this time with postal voting by government officials set to take place before that date. Those opposed to the petitioner, including the Election Commission would be able to argue more forcefully that the election process has reached the point of no return. However, the unexpected announcement that the Government Printer has refused to print the ballot papers without payment being made by the Election Commission threatens to undermine this scenario. The threat to democracy inherent in this case is that the economic crisis is likely to continue for longer and all elections may be postponed on the justification that the government has no money.

The election process is now in full swing at the community level. Election rallies are taking place countrywide with little or no disruption which is to the credit of the government. On the other hand, the stalling of the printing of ballots is likely to bring the election campaigning to a halt. Soon the protests by civil society groups against the economic hardships and taxes which have been disrupted by the police in Colombo, Jaffna and other cities are likely to take a turn for the worst with the threat to a free and fair election taking the prime position. It would be best for th government to ensure that an atmosphere is created and prevails in the lead up to the local government elections to enable the voters to decide on whom they should cast their votes. It will provide an opportunity for the people to express their concerns about the policies and practices of the government.

Heavy Baggage
The government has tried various methods to put off the elections. An early warning sign of the government’s negative attitude towards the local government elections came with the president’s summoning of the election commission members to the presidential secretariat and subjecting them to questioning. These questions included whether the Elections Commission had consulted the education authorities prior to deciding on the date of the elections, which was criticized as an unwarranted intrusion into the independence of the commission. The president has to overcome the heavy baggage he carries in terms of protecting the interests of other members of his government who were literally on the run from the people and the people’s movement prior to him taking office. The situation is likely to further deteriorate following the blocking of the election process due to the novel position taken by the Government Printer.

There is continuing resentment at the manner in which the government is taking action to quell the people’s movement. It is for this reason that elections are so important even if they will consume resources and money that the country can ill afford at this time. There is nothing more important to a democratic society than to have a government and decision makers who are seen as legitimate and possessing the people’s mandate. The manner in which government leaders believed to be corrupt are continuing to act in an unaccountable manner is a further cause for distress among the people. The president and his advisers cannot remain in a state of denial and fail to see the anger of the people at the restoration of the status quo.

An example would be the manner in which procurement of medical supplies are taking place at this time outside of regular tender procedures. The councils of the Ceylon College of Physicians, College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians have expressed concern with regard to this. According to a press release issued by the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA), usually, before importing a drug, the NMRA has to evaluate and register it. However, for the last meeting of the Medicines Evaluation Committee (MEC) of the NMRA a list of about 330 drugs, each in large quantities, which are to be purchased through the Indian Credit Line, was submitted for approval and none of these were evaluated or registered by the NMRA.

Undermining Factors
It is unfortunate, indeed tragic, that these negative developments undermine the very positive stances that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been taking on other issues including winning the confidence of the IMF with regard to debt sustainability and the ethnic and religious minorities regarding their place in the country. The most notable of these is his assertion that a political solution needs to be found to ensure that reconciliation between the ethnic and religious communities becomes a sustainable reality. He has articulated his position clearly and without ambiguity on the matter of the 13th Amendment with an understanding and level of courage that no other present day political leader has been prepared to do. 

During his short period as president, he has visited the north on three occasions, trying to reach out to the civil and political leaders in that formerly war-destroyed part of the country which requires significant investment to catch up with the rest of the country and comparable cities such as Kandy, Galle and Matara. On his most recent visit he articulated his vision of economic development that would embrace the north and also saw to it that land held for a long period of time by the military is returned to the people who own it. He has ensured that the national anthem is sung in Tamil on Independence day, a small gesture no doubt, but one that symbolizes the need for equal recognition of the Tamil language which is spoken as a first language by three of the four main ethnic communities in the country.

However, it is unfortunate and indeed tragic, that these positive sentiments and actions of the president are undermined by the imperatives of power politics and partiality to those he believes are on his side. The issue of the local government elections and the multiple efforts to put a stop to it have created an impression that the president wants to continue with a government that has no moral legitimacy in the eyes of the people. A further erosion of moral legitimacy is likely to follow the latest attempt to scuttle the local government elections. The protection and reinstatement of government leaders widely believed to be corrupt and the persecution of young (and old) protest leaders creates a distance between those who would otherwise wish to support the president’s unique efforts to reform the economy and relations between the ethnic and religious communities, which needs to be prioritized.