Monday, 25 September 2017 14:31

The Logic of Postponing Local Elections - Jehan Perera

The passage of the Provincial Council Election Amendment bill indicates that provincial council elections that were due by the end of this year will not take place any time soon. The original purpose of the amendment was to ensure that there should be at least 30 percent representation of women on party candidate lists. This was much acclaimed and no one publicly dissented or took the matter to courts. However, the salient feature of the new law after more amendment were made to it is to ensure that future elections to the provincial councils will be based on a mixed system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. The government used the method of adding an amendment to an existing bill to circumvent any legal appeal to the courts as occurred in the case of the 20th Amendment to the constitution. The need to demarcate electorates for the first-past-the-post contests gives rise to the possibility of an extended time period for the new system to become operational.

The recourse to the courts can only be within one week of a bill being presented to Parliament. On July 10, 2017 the government gazetted the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill to increase the number of women representatives in Provincial Councils. The Bill sought to amend the Provincial Councils Elections Act, No.2 of 1988. It made it binding on all political parties and independent groups to field at least 30 per cent female candidates in Provincial Council elections. However, when the Supreme Court declared that the 20th Amendment required a referendum on September 19, the government decided to amend the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill. This has brought in the first-past-the-post electoral system along with the proportional system, and the additional dimension of changing the electoral system and thereby the delimitation of electorates.

If the delimitation of local government wards are to be taken as an example it will become clear that the process of delimitation of electorates for provincial council elections can take several months if not years. The local government elections have been in a state of suspended animation for over two years. The minister in charge has made frequent pledges of early elections but has not yet found it possible to deliver on them. The delimitation of wards was highly contested with different political parties having different cases to make with regard to obtaining a more advantageous position for their respective parties. Even after the local government election amendment was passed in Parliament, there still remain problems that are to be ironed out which means that the time frame for local government elections can continue to be increased. With the passage of the new law on provincial councils, postponing elections has become an option at the provincial council level also.

The passage of the provincial council election amendment law came in the aftermath of the government’s failure to obtain the support of some of the provincial councils to approve the 20th Amendment to the constitution. It was in this context that the Supreme Court ruled that this bid to amend the constitution would not be acceptable unless passed by a 2/3 majority in parliament and also approved by the people at a referendum. The Supreme Court verdict was based on the reasoning, among others, that the any delay in holding elections to the provincial councils was not permissible without a referendum as it would affect the sovereignty of the people. The 20th Amendment gave to the central government the power to set the date of the next provincial council election and to administer those whose terms had elapsed.

Although the government asserted that the main purpose of the 20th Amendment was to conduct all provincial council elections on a single date it also opened up the possibility of postponing the provincial council elections for two years. The proposed amendment gave the government the flexibility to conduct the next provincial council election not later than the date on which the last provincial council ended its term, which was September 2019. Therefore, from a political perspective, the main feature of the 20th Amendment was the possibility to postpone elections for two years. In this perspective, it was the failure of the government to obtain the possibility to postpone the provincial council elections that led to it resorting to another option, which was to utilize the Provincial Council election amendment bill in a hurry.

If the government had not passed the provincial council election amendment bill before September 26 of this year, the day that the Sabaragamuwa provincial council finished its term, the power to decide on the elections to the Sabaragamuwa provincial council would have gone to the Elections Commission. If this had happened there might have been provincial council elections to this province and to two other provinces councils, the North Central and Eastern provincial councils, which also will be ending their terms soon. As a government that is based on an alliance of two traditionally rival parties, it would have been threatening to governmental unity if the two parties should contest each other at elections as rivals. Therefore, this can be construed as one key reason why the government has been determined to postpone elections for as long as possible.

What is notable about the continued postponement of the local government elections for over two years is that these repeated postponements have not generated much visible public anger or antipathy against the government. On the one hand, this may be due to the local government institutions, and the politicians who run them, not being held in great public esteem. As the country experienced a change of government two years ago at the national elections held in 2015, most people seem be more interested to give the government an opportunity to deliver positive results instead of getting embroiled in elections for positions to elected bodies that cannot make much of a difference to their lives. A similar situation is likely to prevail in the case of the provincial council elections.

More than local government or provincial council elections, what people seem to be expecting from the government is that it delivers on the promises it made in 2015 at the presidential and general elections. Much was expected of the government when it won those elections. The unique feature of the government is that it is a coalition between two traditionally rival political parties. The initial performance of this bipartisan government has been low in terms of effective problem solving. But in recent months its performance has been improving with the anti corruption process yielding significant results. Last week the government also tabled its report on constitutional reforms, which are also positive and have been well received by the minority and smaller political parties. These are priority concerns which could be jeopardized if local and provincial elections pit the coalition partners against each other.

The central challenge to the government today is to make the best use of the opportunity that the UNP-SLFP coalition has brought with it. These two parties have governed the country for the past six decades. They have done so in turns. Each of them in opposition has generally opposed what the other proposed in government, particularly in regard to the ethnic conflict, which had disastrous consequences. As a result the country got embroiled in three decades of war, human losses and lost economic opportunities. The unique opportunity that the country now has is that these two parties are in government together. The task before these two parties is to ensure that they stay together to ensure that they resolve those problems that they have not been able to resolve on their own, and resolve those problems together. The postponement of local and provincial elections can only be justified on this basis.