Sathiya Moorthy 10 July 2018
Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and his two fellow-members need to be commended for being persistent with their efforts to have the much-delayed Provincial Council (PC) polls conducted at least before the year is out. But no one is really convinced that the Election Commission can pull out a rabbit from the hat, this time at least.
“It is the supremacy of Parliament. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has agreed to give us a roadmap outlining how the elections could be conducted before December, this year,” media reports have quoted Deshapriya as saying. According to the reports, Speaker Jayasuriya had convened a meeting with the Election Commission Chairman and members of the Delimitation Commission assigned to demarcate the boundaries of new electorates in keeping with the proposed PC poll system to be introduced for the elections to the provincial councils.
Therein is the hitch. Chairman Deshapriya has indicated the truth of the matter, that the Election Commission is only an implementation arm without enforcement powers. The powers to make and unmake laws, to make and unmake PCs by extension, rested only with Parliament.
In the earlier avatar as one-man Election Commission, Deshapriya’s predecessor, Dayananda Dissanayake, even had to move the Supreme Court for him to quit office and for the Government to appoint someone in his place early on. With the change of character of the Election Commission from being a ‘department’ to an independent constitutional institution, things were promised to be changed, but they have not.
Deshapriya succeeded Dissanayake, and later became the Chairman of the three-man Election Commission under 19A, whose powers, however, are possibly as outdated and inadequate as ever. Today, when the Election Commission says that the Speaker says that PC polls can be held before year-end, Parliament alone can decide if they would have the time to conduct the same after delimitation, or, if laws had to be amended to go back to the old system.
Already, elections to three PCs fell due last year, but President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved them all, without ordering fresh polls immediately. It owed to the inherent divisions within the ruling coalition, with Sirisena’s SLFP already at loggerheads with the UNP partner, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on a variety of political and administrative issues.
At the time, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe team was united only on one thing, in their conviction that they would lose the polls to the rival Joint Opposition, then under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was around the time Rajapaksa decided to break away from the SLFP and go in alone under the forgotten SLPP brand and the party’s ‘Flower Bud’ symbol.
It was also months before the nation-wide Local Government (LG) polls this February, which again the Government dodged for months and years by finding more reasons than can be ordinarily imagined. Thankfully, the Government decided that it would be better to lose the LG polls in the majority Sinhalese areas to the SLPP-JO than become more of a laughing stock.
If anything in the Sri Lankan electoral scheme that can be called the best or the worst of any ‘scientific rigging’ of the electoral system, there cannot be one better than the continual misuse and abuse of the delimitation process. Add to this, the off-again-on-again national discourse on changing the electoral system from the long-forgotten first-past-the-post to the existing PR scheme, to the ‘mixed matrix’ tried out in the LG polls.
In comparison, the Rajapaksa regime went all-out to the other extreme, to prove their ‘democratic credentials’ time and again at least on the poll front. By picking up one or two of the nine PCs at a time and having polls for them exclusively, not only could they ensure that they (alone) won (other than in the Tamil-majority Northern PC) but also drained the rival UNP, JVP and all others of their financial resources, and tired out their human resources, as well.
The chip was down (only) when luck ran out and Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential polls of January 2015. That he had advanced the polls by months, counting more on astrology than his popularity (as was visible in the post-war polls only five years earlier) made it bad enough. However, so callous and casual had they become the nation’s poll scheme and system that they could not imagine that they were promoting Sirisena still under their care, only to become his last-minute rival and first-hour successor.
‘New or old, we want polls’
With the Tamil-centric Northern PC polls now becoming due by end-October, ruling TNA Spokesman and Parliamentarian, M.A. Sumanthiran, is on record that they want it early on, whether under the old system, or new. The Tamils in general and the TNA in particular cannot be blamed if they feel ‘cheated’ by this one more move of the ‘majority’ Sinhalese polity, so to say.
But then those that have ‘cheated’ the Tamils this time are not the whole of the Sinhalese polity, but their own friends in the present Government. The TNA had talked the Tamil community into voting against Rajapaksa, both in 2010 Elections and the more recent one in 2015, based on promised commitments, purportedly made by the present-day ruling duo of President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe.
In 2010, the Tamils voted for war-time Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, against war-time President Rajapaksa. The former lost. In 2015, they voted, again on the TNA say-so, against Rajapaksa (whom they wanted to defeat anyway), and Sirisena, the latter’s political and ministerial aide, won.
Today, when the nation is already in election-mode, long ahead of the presidential polls of January 2020, the TNA is under pressure from within. On the leadership front, they do not need any new adversary, as TNA’s Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran is acting worse than anyone so acknowledged. From outside, the LG polls have shown them that the TNA is no more the lord of all the electorates and voters that they surveyed, as used to be the case ahead of the LG polls.
Tamil votes on a platter
For the TNA to convince even their ‘residual voters’ from the LG polls to heed them on the presidential polls, they need the NPC polls first. The rest of the perceived promises of the incumbent Government too have to follow ahead of the presidential polls. For that, they still need this Government.
In turn, for any party or personality from the current governmental dispensation to count on the Tamil votes in the 2020 Elections, they need to deliver on their pre-poll commitments from the past to the TNA, or, at least they need to convince the Tamil voters, and not just the TNA, that they did their best. After all, the Tamil votes along with those of the relatively-recently estranged Muslim voters from the Rajapaksa camp, which alone made Sirisena’s victory possible in 2015.
For the TNA leadership, in turn, they cannot face their people without a ‘political solution,’ be it ahead of the presidential polls, which is long way off, or even the PC polls, which are now promised by the year-end. The TNA’s limitation is, however, not confined to giving away the ‘decisive’ Tamil votes on a platter, to a Sinhalese candidate of their choice.
Instead, the TNA needs a ‘political solution,’ possibly for the party even to retain the NPC, where Chief Minister Wigneswaran, and not the party per se, may be the deciding factor, one way or the other.
That would be too much for their ‘Sinhalese political allies’ to lose, as they might still lose as many Sinhalese votes as the Tamils may be giving them, especially if the latter is convinced that in the name of a ‘political solution’ to the vexatious ethnic issue, the Government parties had given away more to the Tamils than any time in the past!