National significance of upcoming Sri Lankan local government elections

National significance of upcoming Sri Lankan local government elections

By Veeragathy  Thanabalasingham/Daily Express

Colombo, December 16: Sri Lankan political parties are busy filing nominations to contest local government elections scheduled for early 2018. As many political analysts have observed, the elections, postponed for more than two and a half years, have aroused the same interest as a general election. The interest is understandable given that it would be a litmus test of both the government’s standing and the new electoral system being tried out.

This is the first nationwide elections after the 2015 parliamentary elections. This will also be the first instance where the Election Commission will be trying out the hybrid First-Past-the-Post System (FPP) and Proportional Representation (PR) system. And there is no gainsaying that this will also be an election that will test the popularity of the National Unity Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the South and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the North and East.

Interestingly, the election will also be an opportunity for other parties and their leaders to test their public appeal in terms of performance,  in respect of safeguarding the interest of the constituents.

Local government elections often take the semblance of a referendum on the policies and activities of the main political forces of the country. In the context of the National Unity Government, this reality places greater significance on the upcoming local polls.

It is also worth noting that there are clear signs of new political alignments among the majority community in the South and among the Tamils and Muslims in the North and East.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a main partner of the National Unity Government has been split for almost three years and the faction calling itself Joint Opposition (JO) led by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is posing a political challenge to the other faction led by President Sirisena. This is despite the fact that the latter is the leader of the party officially.

The challenge from the Rajapaksa faction is so formidable that it has compelled the Sirisena faction to initiate talks exploring the possibility of jointly contesting the elections. Fortunately or unfortunately, the conditions put forward by the Rajapaksa loyalists for a patch-up were deemed unacceptable by the SLFP component and talks died a natural death.

As already planned, Rajapaksa-led political forces are filing their nominations under the new party’ name, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP),whose nominal leader is former Minister of External Affairs G. L. Peiris.

The SLPP has chosen the ‘flower bud’ as its symbol, and is contesting disregarding the warning by the leadership of the SLFP, that any United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Member of Parliament found canvassing for or doing any election related work for a different party would lose his or her seat in the House.

Politicians of the JO, especially those from the Rajapaksa faction are overly confident of a resounding victory in the local polls. Though the aggressive political campaigns of the JO might give credence to their confidence and might have created considerable momentum against the government, whether that momentum could be translated into a massive vote against the government is left to be seen.

Although the results of the local polls certainly will not pose any threat or challenge to President Sirisena’s position as Executive, his political clout as the leader of the SLFP will be seriously undermined in the event of a poor performance by his faction.

It will to a certain extent also determine the political course of the former President, whether he can make the new party his future political vehicle with confidence.

Suresh Premachandran, Gajendrakumar and Wigneswaran of Tamil Peoples Council

As far as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is concerned, as pointed out on an  earlier occasion in this column, he is of the strong belief that a divided SLFP will be of great advantage to the future electoral prospects of his party. But, he must be mindful of the fact that as the UNP is the leading partner in the present government, anti-incumbency factor could work against the party as well.

People who voted in this government with great expectations are now greatly disappointed by the omissions and commissions of its rulers. Surely both main partners of the government cannot entertain any hope that their popularity remains at the same level as it was three years ago. Much water has flown under the Kelani river in the three years, washing away the expectations of the people.

Tamil Scene

Meanwhile, the relatively radical forces in the Tamil polity that have fiercely campaigned to create a momentum against the TNA in the North and East are now split, with the main protagonists of these political forces parting ways and forming new electoral alliances.

Exactly two years ago, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, the leader of All Ceylon Tamil Congress-led alliance, the Tamil People’s Front (TPF), and Suresh Premachandran,  leader of the Eelam People Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), played a major role in the formation of a civil society organization,  namely the “Thamil Makkal Paeravai”   or Tamil People Council (TPC) to champion the Tamil nationalist cause.

Had it not been for their active participation and their ability to rope in Chief Minister of the Northern Province C. V. Wigneswaran as the Co-chairman of the TPC, it could not have assumed this much of significance in the public domain.

Now, in the backdrop of a situation where Gajendrakumar and Premachandran are spearheading the election campaign from different platforms under different symbols, the pertinent question is: Wither Tamil People Council ?

At a TPC meeting recently, where Wigneswaran was in attendance, Gajendrakumar and Premachandran floated the idea of forming a new political alliance to contest the local polls. The idea was to make it a platform to find out the thoughts and reaction of the Tamil people of the North and East to the interim report on the Constitutional Assembly, which they completely rejected.

Wigneswaran, for his part, declared that the TPC has no problem supporting an electoral alliance that works in accordance with the policies and goals of the civil society organization. But within a few days of this meeting, differences developed between Gajendrakumar and Premachandran on the strategy regarding the elections.

While Gajendrakumar has been keen on portraying himself as a die-hard Tamil nationalist loath to compromise, the latter argued they would be able to pose an electoral challenge to the TNA only if the contested the elections under a popular symbol. Hence Premachandran’s alliance with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) led by veteran politician Veerasingham Anandasangaree whose symbol is the Rising Sun.

Premachandran’s argument was viewed as an insult to the intelligence of the Tamil people, and Gajendrakumar openly accused the EPRLF leader or acting according to the agenda of a neighbouring country.

In the wake of the parting of ways of the key political players of TPC, one wonders whether this civil society organization is still functioning or whether it has ceased to exist? If it does exist, will the stalwarts of the forum convene a meeting to take a stand on the local polls? Will Gajendrakumar and Premachandran demonstrate their ‘ political maturity by participating in the meetings of the forum despite their differences regarding the electoral strategy?   Will Wigneswaran, as the co-chair of the forum, tell the Tamil people of the present position regarding the local polls?

Be that as it may, in short, these nationwide elections will open the way for new political realignments in the North and the South,  ahead of the two important national elections in two years.

(Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is Consultant Editor with the Colombo-based Express Newspapers)