The private member’s Bill that has been presented by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran to amend the Provincial Council Elections Act is in a way an attempt to test President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s integrity. It would be interesting to note how the President would respond to it.
The Bill seeks to annul the highly controversial amendment that was introduced to the Provincial Councils Elections Act in 2017 in order to introduce mixed election system for the provincial councils and revert to the Proportional Representation (PR).
It is not that the TNA is against the mixed electoral system, but the 2017 amendment has become a stumbling block to provincial council elections and it has prevented the said elections for the past six years and apparently for the years to come. The significance of the Bill is that it seeks the elections for the provincial councils under a President who was instrumental to the disruption of the same elections.
In September, 2017 the United National Party (UNP)-led government was to adopt a Bill called 20th Amendment to the Constitution which provided for the elections for all nine provincial councils to be held on a same day, instead of holding them on a staggered basis. However, the Supreme Court said that the Bill would delay elections for some provincial councils which the court ruled illegal. Then the government abandoned the Bill in toto, indicating what the government really wanted was nothing but the
deferral of elections.
It is not that the TNA is against the mixed electoral system, but the 2017 amendment has become a stumbling block to provincial council elections and it has prevented the said elections for the past six years and apparently for the years to come
Then the government in the same month presented another Bill – Provincial Councils Elections Amendment Bill – in Parliament to make 30% of female representation mandatory. While the committee stage debate on the Bill was on, the government sneaked in an amendment to the Bill which provided for the mixed electoral system for the provincial councils. In a practical sense, the amendment needed postponement of provincial council elections for want of a delimitation process. Thus, the government achieved what it failed to achieve through the 20A.
A delimitation commission for provincial councils was then appointed under the chairmanship of K. Thavalingam, the former Surveyor General which handed over its report to Minister Faiszer Musthpha in August, 2018. However, since Parliament failed to ratify it with a two thirds majority vote, a review committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as per the law. But the committee never handed over its report to the President despite the law stipulating to present it in two months. Thus, the elections for the provincial councils are being dragged on. It is this amendment that Sumanthiran’s private members Bill is seeking to repeal.
No Tamil party in the north and the east, except for the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) believes that the provincial council system can solve their problems. They demand a more comprehensive power sharing mechanism. Yet, in the light of their demand not seeming to be met in the foreseeable future, they have been since lately demanding to hold the provincial council elections, as a short-term transitional solution. When President Wickremesinghe told in November last year that he would solve the ethnic problem before the 75th Independence Day which fell on February 4 this year, the Tamil parties told him to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in full including holding provincial council elections before January 31. Sumanthiran’s Bill seems to have emanated from that demand.
Two issues apparently stand in this Bill’s way. One is the lack of integrity and political will on the part of the government in respect of resolving the ethnic problem and the other being its fear of facing the people at an election.
President Wickremesinghe called on all political parties in Parliament during the budget debate in November last year to get together to resolve the ethnic problem by the 75th anniversary of the Independence of Sri Lanka. When Tamil parties demanded the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution including holding provincial council elections prior to it, he agreed to it during a discussion with them on December 13 last year. He even expressed his willingness to discuss the implementation of 13th Amendment immediately. However, while the talks with the Tamil parties on the matter were still going on, he forgot what he agreed to and told a gathering in Jaffna on the National Thai Pongal Day (January 15) that the 13A would be implemented fully within the next two years.
Ruling parties presented two Bills seeking changes in LG elections laws while the Election Commission had announced the elections for those councils. President Wickremesinghe even after his party had tendered nominations for the elections said the elections are not legally announced
Forgetting that statement as well he, during this year’s May Day rally of his party, the UNP, at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium said that an agreement would be reached on finding a lasting solution to the ethnic problem within the course of this year, while stressing the fact that resolving the matter is a prerequisite to the economic development of the country. This lack of consistency in his statements seems to have discouraged the Tamil parties.
On the other hand, the number of hurdles put up by the government against the local government elections which were to be held on March 9 indicates the ruling parties’ fear of any election. They attempted to put off LG elections in the guise of reducing the number of members of the LG bodies from 8000 to 4000. Then, in last December they wanted to appoint a Parliamentary select committee (PSC) on electoral reforms, despite a PSC on the same matter having handed over its report six months ago. A retired army official who is believed to be a supporter of one of the two ruling parties – the UNP and the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna (SLPP) – filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking the postponement of local council elections. Ruling parties presented two Bills seeking changes in LG elections laws while the Election Commission had announced the elections for those councils. President Wickremesinghe even after his party had tendered nominations for the elections said the elections are not
Finally, they succeeded in postponing the elections by not providing funds for the polls using executive powers. Hence, it is clear that the two ruling parties are hell bent on preventing any election being held at this juncture where the popularity of both parties is at its lowest ebb, due to the economic crisis. For that very reason it is also clear that they would not allow the PC elections too being held, no matter they are vital in terms of power devolution or reconciliation that the UNP has been bragging to be committed to. Even the passage of MP Sumanthiran’s Bill, for these very reasons is, in the balance.