Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphGovernment leaders appear to be considering all options for remaining in office beyond the constitutionally mandated periods of five years for the presidency and parliament. UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has announced that the government is considering postponing both the presidential and general elections for two years. There has been a considerable amount of speculation about a possible postponement of elections. In fact, this has been a part of the political discussion for over a year. The justification given for the effective freezing of politics until economic revival is assured is the need to consolidate the gains of economic recovery and prevent reversal. The assumption underlying this argument is that the present government is best suited for the job and their track record bears this out.

Two years ago, people spilled out onto the streets to demand the resignation of the former president and government because of the intolerable economic situation. They wanted a new government that would restore their economic situation. This is still to happen and there is pent up frustration in society and demand for change that is bubbling beneath the surface. Recently there was a news report that a leading business conglomerate had grown by over 400 percent in the first four months of this year. But statistics on malnutrition and poverty continue their negative plunge. Public opinion polls show the government lagging in a distant third place behind the two main opposition parties. The disturbing call for a postponement of elections by two years arises in these circumstances where it appears that the government fears the verdict of the masses of people.

There is concern that the government is systematically increasing the powers available to law enforcement agencies to restrict civic space and quell dissent. The way in which the government is persisting in its use of the much criticized Prevention of Terrorism Act, and now the new Online Safety law which gives it the power to close the democratic space for dissent through the social media bodes ill for the future. The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act, Broadcasting Authority Act and NGO Act which are in the pipeline would give government-appointed decision makers the power to decide whether trade union action and political opinion can be subject to punitive measures even on spurious grounds of causing harm to national sovereignty and public order in the country.

Subvert Democracy
Both provincial and local government elections have already been postponed and are long overdue which violates democratic principles and the rights of people. In these fraught circumstances, and with decisive presidential elections around the corner, the announcement by the UNP General Secretary that the government is considering postponing both the presidential and general elections for two years is akin to a “trial balloon” being floated on this matter. A “trial balloon” refers to a preliminary or tentative proposal or idea that is floated to gauge public reaction or interest before committing to a full-fledged plan or course of action.

Elections are vital in democracy and serve as the fundamental mechanism for ensuring that the government reflects the will of the people. The problem with the UNP General Secretary’s proposal for a postponement of elections is that this goes against the fundamental principles of democracy, and accountability, sketched out above. It is on the day of elections that the voting population becomes truly supreme and obtains to their hands the power to evict their representatives or to keep them. In Sri Lanka, people have been active participants at elections with the participation rate invariably exceeding 70 percent, a percentage that would be much higher if the nearly 20 percent of the electorate working out of Sri Lanka as migrant workers are able to vote.

On two occasions government leaders succeeded in this undemocratic project. The first time was in 1972 when the government passed an entirely new constitution in which they awarded themselves an extra two years to be in power. This was followed in an even more abusive way in 1982, when the government held a referendum to extend the term of parliament by a further five years without holding an election. This was tragically followed by the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 which was facilitated by senior members of that same government which led to full scale ethnic war that lasted another decade and a half.

International Disavowal
The two past governments that actually succeeded in extending their terms of office were thereafter referred to with disgust and despair as the “seven-year curse” and to the “seventeen-year curse” respectively. On this basis it can be surmised that the people will not take kindly to an attempt to postpone elections for a further two years. It can also be surmised with equal certainty that the major opposition parties, and in particular the SJB and JVP, would also be opposed to such a postponement. Inasmuch as the government is concerned about a post-election scenario in which they are no longer at the centre of the power equation, so would the opposition parties be optimistic that their chances of success are better than ever before.

Viewed in this context, it is likely that the “trial balloon” regarding the postponement of elections has been floated to assess the response of the international community. The result of the “trial balloon” put up by the government has not met with encouragement by the international community. The international community values Sri Lanka’s democracy and sees elections as the key element in it. No sooner had the UNP General Secretary made his proposal regarding the postponement of elections that the US Ambassador Julie Chung paid a visit to the Election Commission where she inquired into the status of preparations for the presidential elections. In addition, an election monitoring delegation from the EU paid a separate visit to the Election Commission. The message is clear that the elections have to be factored into the design of economic and social stability, and this is as much a challenge to be taken up by the Sri Lankan voters as by the Sri Lankan state.

If ensuring sustainable economic progress is the goal, the government would be more appreciated if it were to provide evidence of implementing strict anti-corruption laws. So far only 30 percent of the IMF governance conditions have in fact been implemented by the government. The failure to meet due commitments also translates for a total of 19 unfulfilled obligations of which 10 are related to transparency and publishing requirements, which include; public semi-annually public procurement contracts and estimation of tax exemptions, publish direct costs of tax incentives. These are the enablers of massive corruption. Sustainable economic recovery is also more likely if free and fair elections for the presidential, parliamentary, provincial council and local government authorities are held according to a short time frame to ensure legitimate government with a democratic mandate to rebuild the country soon.

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