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It’s funds, stupid

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Monday 19th June, 2023

The Election Commission (EC) is in the news again. It is reportedly planning to ask the government once again to allocate funds for the conduct of the local government (LG) polls, which have been postponed. It is reported to have decided to renew its call for funds because the government, which refused to grant funds for elections, more than once, citing economic difficulties as the reason, has said that the economy is now firmly on course to recovery. True, the ruling party leaders are boasting that their efforts to straighten up the economy have yielded the desired results to a considerable extent, but if the EC presses for funds, they will make an about-turn and claim that the economy is still in bad way, and they are not in a position to allocate funds for the LG polls.

The EC is right in asking for funds. After all, its raison d’etre is to conduct elections. So, it is left with no alternative but to do its best to enable the public to exercise their franchise. The SLPP-UNP combine, however, is determined to prevent the EC from holding elections because a mid-term electoral setback is a worrisome proposition for any unpopular regime. The current dispensation does not want its electoral weakness exposed ahead of parliamentary or presidential polls.

The country finds itself in a situation similar to what we witnessed during the latter stages of the Yahapalana rule. The government has managed to retain a working majority in Parliament by engineering crossovers but its popularity has manifestly plummeted. The UNP-led Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council (PC) polls in 2017 but had to face the LG elections, the following year, and lost them badly. It, however, could not avoid the presidential election (2019), which led to its collapse. The incumbent regime is therefore determined to postpone all elections until the next presidential contest in the hope that it will be able to shore up its image and recover lost ground on the political front by that time. Hope is said to spring eternal.

Having refused to make funds available for the mini polls repeatedly, now the government is trying to justify its deplorable action by claiming that the people are not well-disposed towards elections! The Opposition has frowned on President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent statement, at a function attended by senior judges, lawyers and others, that the public has lost faith in elections.

It views this claim as a subtle attempt to influence the judiciary because the postponement of the LG polls has been challenged in court. One may recall that the UNP peddled an argument similar to the aforesaid one before doing away with the 1982 general election with the help of a heavily-rigged referendum, and triggering a series of events that led to a bloodbath a few years later.

Some SLPP and UNP politicians are trying to dupe the public by claiming that the government will advance the presidential polls, and therefore it is no use holding other elections in the meantime. Only the popularly elected Presidents are constitutionally empowered to face presidential elections prematurely. The only way the government can hold an early presidential election is to amend the Constitution to grant that power to the Presidents elected by Parliament as well. But this task requires a two thirds majority and the government cannot muster more than 123 votes. So, it is nothing but antithetical to democracy for the government to go on postponing the LG polls.

Adding insult to injury, some ruling party seniors have sought to ridicule the Opposition’s campaign to pressure the government to hold elections. Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga has gone on record as saying that the Opposition’s call for election is for the consumption of the public; he has audaciously claimed that the SLPP is confident of winning future elections! Thus, the country has come to a pass where government politicians think their dictates and claims must take precedence over the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of the public. Strangely, the Opposition remains dormant.

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