Local Government (LG) bodies in Sri Lanka are one of the cornerstones of public administration and structure of the state. There are 341 local bodies including municipal councils, urban councils and pradeshiya sbhas (regional councils). Although local government bodies are primarily responsible for community-level operations, they provide extremely critical public services including but not limited to garbage management and maintenance of local roads, markets, etc.
At the national level, one of the primary utilities of LGs is that elections to these bodies often help understand the pulse of the people. These elections often indicate or rather signal political preferences of the people. This aspect gained added significance in the backdrop of the elimination of by-elections with the introduction of the proportional representation system in 1978.
Terms of many local bodies started to expire since 2012 and all councils ended their terms in 2015. Administration of the expired bodies were placed under the control of special commissioners appointed by the central government. There has been a delay of at least two years to conduct these elections, which in a way, dented the democratic credentials of the government in power. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – United National Party (UNP) coalition came to power on slogans of good governance and democracy. Hence, it was expected to uphold democratic values. Delaying the LG elections was obviously undemocratic. Now the elections have been scheduled to be held on February 10, 2018.
Critics pointed out that the government was purposefully delaying the election due to the fear that it might pave the way for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to make a comeback as a non-SLFP force. They had a point. Rajapaksa has already formed his own party called the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and has appointed a proxy, G.L. Peiris, as its chairman.
It is not easy to predict the election results of councils located in the South. The SLFP and/or the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) headed by President Sirisena, the UNP headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and the SLPP are the leading contenders in the South. This author returned to the United States after an extended stay in Sri Lanka. The author could feel widespread dissatisfaction about the government in the South. General complaints revolve around for example, the exorbitant cost of living (symbolized often by the price of coconut), lack of development activities, and alleged corruption.
The bond scam, which involved high ranking public sectors officials appointed by the government and ministers, has seriously undermined the credibility of the government. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP have effectively used the bond scam issue as a propaganda tool. Many seem to believe the version offered by the Joint Opposition. Therefore, one could assume that there will be a dent in the votes garnered by the Sirisena faction of the SLFP and the UNP in the general election of 2015. Meanwhile, many still remember the excesses, especially the alleged corruption, of the Rajapaksa administration.
Nevertheless, this author will not be surprised if the SLFP and the UNP win urban areas and regions with considerable minority concentration and councils with mostly Sinhala-Buddhist voters go to the SLPP. Either way, the South will use the election to send political signals. The group headed by Rajapakasa winning majority of the councils in the South would have serious ramifications in terms of future political trends in the country.
The story of the North or the Tamil areas is different. Voters in these areas hardly use this type of elections to send political signals, especially to their own political parties. For a long time, Tamil voters in the North-East have adopted, what could be called the one party-one leader policy. No matter what, they generally stick with their main party. Different parties have had this honor in different periods. Now, it is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Therefore, the North most probably will vote for the TNA. But, does TNA deserve the Tamil vote in 2018? In my view, the answer is no.
There are three specific reasons why the Tamils should not vote for the TNA in the February election.
First and foremost, the TNA, as the main political party representing the Tamil people in parliament has evolved into an utter disappointment, leading to widespread dissatisfaction among the Tamil people. During the war, the LTTE controlled all aspects of Tamils politics. With the end of the war, serving and protecting Tamil interest became the primary responsibility of the TNA. As of today, the TNA has nothing to show as an achievement. During Rajapaksa rule threats and intimidation were used as excuses. In 2015, the TNA played a major role in bringing the incumbent government to power. Yet, could not achieve anything substantial primarily because leading members of the party view themselves and operate as allies of the government.
Some have turned into apologists of the government. Sampanthan in a recent interview to The Hindu stated that he expects the constitutional reform process to “move forward rapidly” after the local government elections in February. The truth is that he really does not know the possible direction of the almost nonexistent constitutional reform process because it depends largely on the nature of the election results. The constitutional reform process will be curtailed if Rajapaksa wins more councils in the South.
Ineffectiveness and lack of strategic thinking are other reasons for the sluggishness. For example, the party could not effectively control and guide the only provincial council it won in 2013; the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). Recently, Sambanthan himself criticized his own party in the NPC saying that the council could have done better. The TNA led Northern provincial council was a failure as infightings, action less nationalist rhetoric, lack of administrative capacity, and disinclination to constructively engage outside forces have dominated the agenda. At the same time, one cannot underestimate the role the central government played in undermining the NPC.
Even as the main opposition party in parliament, the TNA has failed the nation. It does not forcefully raise important national issues in and outside of parliament and mostly votes with the government. Ideally, the party should give up this position and go back to representing the Tamil people.
Hence, the Tamil people have a responsibility to remind the TNA that it is not doing its job. The local government election is the right time to send this signal. This is the second reason why the Tamils should vote for alternative political parties in this election. Third, currently, the TNA looks extremely feeble and fragmented. It may become a party without an effective leadership in the near future. If, the TNA collapses, the Tamils need another party to take on the mantle. Right now, this alternative does not exist. The local government election is an excellent opportunity to elect an alternative party to prove itself at the very grassroots level. Therefore, from a strategic point of view, the Tamils should be voting for parties other than the TNA in the February election.
Would the Tamils do it? This is doubtful. There are two specific reasons for why the Tamils would most probably vote for the TNA in this election. One, many people habitually vote for the leading Tamil party in any election. Despite the disappointment, they would vote for the TNA. Two, many voters feel that there is no alternative even when several Tamil parties are in the fray. Hence, they will also vote for the TNA. Perhaps, it is mainly the second reason that would allow the TNA to emerge victorious in February.