Coalition partners in unusual embrace over pending PC polls

  • High-level Sirisena, Wickremesinghe delegations meet to work out strategy, but cloud of uncertainty over their political agendas
  • Govt. to go full steam ahead with Grama Shakthi and Gamperaliya development programmes
  • Every ministry to showcase its achievement in bid to counter big ‘JO’ protest on September 5

Thrusting forward despite the growing rift, fears of crippling strikes or protests, a sudden spurt in prices of consumer goods amidst other woes, this week saw the ruling coalition partners in an unusual embrace over pending Provincial Council elections.

The two sides – leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) – decided Thursday night that they should go ahead with the polls early next year. Despite the firm decision, there were still doubts among some whether it would continue to remain a distant dream. It is not only in the light of complicated issues but also differing views. There were other highly placed sources that opined differently. One of them claimed the decision could even be a “tactical” move. This is in the light of the National Elections Commission, which is an independent body, being empowered to decide on PC polls in the current situation. The coalition’s idea, it seems, is to deliver a message that “we are on the same wavelength” and hope unfolding events would make clear “it is difficult.”

This move is notwithstanding Parliament voting en masse on Friday evening to reject the Delimitation Commission report. Its acceptance was long awaited to facilitate PC polls or so the government leaders claimed. To make matters worse, it was commissioned by none other than President Maithripala Sirisena. The report defined the boundaries of PCs to, as far as possible, ensure they are drawn to achieve equitable representation. The United National Front (UNF), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the ‘Joint Opposition’ and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) all voted together to reject it.  The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) abstained. The tally totalled 139 against in a House where regular absenteeism of large numbers is becoming a common feature. “There is no appetite to put the PC polls off,” a senior Minister who did not wish to be identified declared.

On the way for his official role in the Kandy Esala Perahera yesterday, President Sirisena also visited Medamulana to condole with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brothers Gotabaya and Chamal, on the death of their brother Chandra.

“There is still no formal explanation why the UNP opposed President Sirisena’s own proposal. If it knew it was going to be doomed, why did it go ahead with such a move,” former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the de facto leader of the ‘Joint Opposition’ bemoaned. He added; “We are not sure until there is a formal announcement whether the PC elections will be held.” Evidently, the ‘JO’ leadership had not apprised him that it was joining hands with the UNP to vote against the report. He spoke to the Sunday Times on the telephone from his ancestral home at Medamulana where the family is mourning the death of Tudor Chandra Rajapaksa. He was the third brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the funeral was held yesterday amidst large crowds.

Premier Wickremesinghe condoled with the former President during a telephone call. President Sirisena, who was scheduled to be in Kandy for the last day of the Esala Perehera last evening flew by Air Force helicopter first to Medamulana to pay his respects. He stayed overnight in Kandy and will today receive the formal communication from the Diyawadana Nilame of Sri Dalada Maligawa that the perehera has been successfully conducted.

President Sirisena’s visit Medamulana to offer his condolences shows a thawing in his relationship with his predecessor.  Unconfirmed reports spoke of the duo having spoken on the telephone recently after former Minister S.B, Dissanayake initiated a call. Both sides have refused to confirm the call. It is known that Dissanayake, one of 19 SLFP MPs now sitting in the Opposition benches, is continuing his efforts towards rapprochement together with colleagues Thilanga Sumathipala and Dilan Perera.

The heavy cloud of uncertainty on how PC polls could be held early next year is due to many reasons. Main among them is the ongoing debate over the electoral system to be adopted for such a poll. Issues relating to it remain unresolved. They are time consuming. Added to that would be questions over the next presidential election. In terms of the Constitution, the President is empowered to call a presidential election any time after January 8, next year when he completes four years in office. Thus, PC polls early next year would push back a presidential poll should the President decide to hold one.  There are also the resultant questions – whether a possible defeat by the ruling parties, particularly in the light of their newly launched development programmes not reaching fruition by then, may place them in a completely disadvantageous position electorally at the presidential poll. This is if they are held within months thereafter or even later. Needless to say that the development programmes would become a distraction to MPs who will be involved in PC polls.

On Thursday night, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, accompanied by their respective senior ministers held a 90-minute discussion at his Mahagamsekera Mawatha residence in Colombo. The group of ministers form the SLFP-UNP ‘peace team’ that has been shuttling between the two leaders to iron out differences on past controversial situations. Besides Sirisena, the SLFP was represented by Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sarath Amunugama and Mahinda Amaraweera.  On Wickremesinghe’s side were Lakshman Kiriella, Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema and Sajith Premadasa. Also in attendance was Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha (SLFP).

Minister Musthapha who has been spearheading legislation in Parliament on matters relating to the local government and provincial council issues, declared that the Delimitation Commission report was not his own but an “independent one.” He charged that the Commission had not considered the creation of multi-member seats. If indeed that was the case, a provision could have easily been incorporated in the Commission’s terms of reference. There was none. Nevertheless, the fact that President Sirisena had appointed the Commission in October last year was lost on him or he was caught up in an indefensible position. In fact, he had made many references to this Commission during speeches in Parliament on the conduct of PC polls. He claimed that the delay in these polls was the result of the Commission’s work.

Their report was due last year but was handed in on February 19 this year to Minister Musthapha. He tabled it in Parliament in March. A debate should have been held within a month and approved. Speakers at the debate on Friday blamed Minister Musthapha for failure to have the debate in time and go ahead with the elections. The Minister replied saying it was only his duty to submit the report to Parliament in time and claimed he had performed his duty.  He said, however, “the flavor of the report has not been lost” and he declared it could be debated.

It was only last month a Review Committee headed by Premier Wickremesinghe to study the report and look into the issues of holding PC elections was appointed. Two other members of the Committee, Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and Delimitation Commission Chairman Thavalingam sent in their resignations citing ‘conflict of interest’ as the reason. They were due to hand in their report within two months.

To become effective, the Delimitation Commission Report would have to be approved in Parliament with a two thirds vote – one which was in any case, not possible. At the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe meeting on Thursday night, it was pointed out that since Parliament had now rejected the report, it could not naturally be enforced. Hence, Musthapha said the next step would be for the Speaker of Parliament to appoint a five-member Committee headed by the Prime Minister to study the report further and recommend changes. Such an amended report would thereafter have to be forwarded to the President. However, there was no requirement that it should go before Parliament, he pointed out. Wickremesinghe also made clear at the meeting that the UNP could not accept the report. Earlier, on Thursday, the UNP parliamentary group had in fact taken a decision to that effect. An MP who had often voiced the views of the party disclosed that “the mood was not one to get us to prepare for polls.”

After the meeting decided that PC polls should be held, Sirisena reminded those present about the pledge he had made before the 2015 presidential election. He had said in his pledge for a stable country: “Another serious problem that our Sri Lanka Freedom Party led government failed to address during the last twenty years is the change of the electoral system. The existing electoral system is a mainspring of corruption and violence. Candidates have to spend a colossal sum of money due to the preferential system. I will change this completely. I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own. The new electoral system will be a combination of the first past the post system, and the proportional representation of defeated candidates. Since the total composition of Parliament would not change by the proposal, I will be able to get the agreement of political parties represented in Parliament for a change. Further wastage and clashes could be minimised since electoral campaigns would be limited to single electorates.”

At Thursday night’s meeting, Premier Wickremewsinghe agreed that the UNP would discuss the matter with the SLFP. This is a knotty issue. The UNP has not made its official position on electoral reforms known so far. It is under pressure from the smaller political parties who together form the United National Front (UNF) to conduct PC polls under the existing proportional representation system. This is what was used during the last PC polls. These parties are the Democratic People’s Front of Minister Mano Ganesan, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress of Minister Rauff Hakeem. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) too is in favour of the existing PR system.

The terms of three PCs — Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa — lapsed last year. They have come under Governor’s rule. The terms of three more PCs — Northern, North Western and Central — will lapse in October this year. The terms of remaining PCs are Western (April 2019), Southern April (2019) and Uva (October 2019).

There is no gainsaying that tardiness, deliberate or otherwise, together with a failure to stick to a time schedule, has placed the Government in this predicament over PC polls. On the one hand, the UNP is under pressure from the TNA whose help it obtained for new legislation that enables the postponement of PC polls. That the polls would be held was an assurance given to the TNA which is mindful that the PCs were created to devolve power to the provinces — a demand by Tamil political parties and endorsed by the Government of India.

The TNA members will, therefore, find it difficult to go to their electorates at a new election, presidential or parliamentary, as they would stand accused of undoing whatever was “won” for the Tamil community. On the other hand, the UNP’s indecision over the electoral system is clearly over its inability to address the demands of the smaller parties under its fold. That debate is bound to linger whilst the SLFP and its leader President Sirisena are insisting on a mixed system of both first-past-the-post and proportional representation – anathema to smaller parties who will face the threat of being wiped out at a poll depending on the percentages for first-past-the-post and PR. This is where the dilemma lies. Hence, the question is whether government leaders will be in a position to resolve the outstanding issues before PC polls could be held. That is not going to be an easy task.

Thursday night’s Sirisena-Wickremesinghe talks also took on other subjects. In focus was Sirisena’s Grama Shakthi(Strengthening Villages) programme as well as Wickremesinghe’s Gamperaliya (Village Reawakening). Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera was to make an interesting disclosure — every electorate related to these projects will receive Rs 100 million each. These funds, he said, have already been set apart.

In fact, earlier this week, Sirisena summoned to the Janadipathi Mandiraya (President’s House) SLFP members of local councils, provincial councils and electoral organisers. He met them in two different batches and told them to get actively involved in the two major projects. One of the participants, Chandrika Soysa, a member of the Maharagama Urban Council explained: “We were advised on how to take the Grama Shakthi programme to the people. Bundles of leaflets were given for distribution. They spelt out the loan schemes available for housing, construction of small roads, provision of roofing sheets, rehabilitation of tanks, canals and plans to protect public places.”

Added Upali Meegahapola, Opposition Leader in the Ratnapura Urban Council: “We were asked to monitor both the Grama Shakthi and Gamperaliya . Housing loans from Rs 500,000 to one million rupees will be made available. Electricity connections will be provided.” Another member from Matale, who did not wish to be named, declared that they had been told to invite even defeated SLFP candidates to take part in the programmes.

As is clear, one main project is under the aegis of Sirisena whilst the other is under Wickremesinghe. The two are demonstrating increasingly that they would be candidates at the next presidential election Thus parting of the ways at some point when their names are formally announced will see each with a project in hand.

In this regard, Wickremesinghe suffered a major setback at last Tuesday’s weekly cabinet meeting. That Sirisena has on two successive occasions put off his proposal to pay Rs 200,000 per month to MPs “monitoring” the Gamperaliya did not deter him. When it came to “any other business,” Wickremesinghe proposed verbally that a car and fuel be provided to these “monitoring MPs.” He declared that ministers had given promises that the MPs should be helped so that they could assist in the projects. Sirisena was again not in favour and said that the matter could be looked into later. Past events have demonstrated that it was his way of saying “no.” Then, Wickremesinghe pressed ahead to ask whether at least fuel could be provided but that too did not meet Sirisena’s approval.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe talks also focused on the ‘Joint Opposition’ protest planned for September 5 in Colombo. The matter has been first raised at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting by Housing Minister and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. He said that to counter their protest, the Government should launch programmes on the same day to educate the people on their achievements. Eka honda adahasak. Api thavath saakatchcha keramu or that is a good proposal. We will discuss it further, declared Sirisena.

It was decided at Thursday night’s talks that every ministry would showcase its achievements in the past nearly three years and arrange for the public to visit Colombo and see them. Similar programmes are also to be launched in the districts and even electorates. There were claims at the discussion that the recent threats of further strikes were politically motivated. The Police are to be directed to take action against anyone who damaged state assets or violated laws. The idea behind the Government move is to deliver a message to the Opposition parties that they could muster as much crowds as they would.

The move to counter the Opposition protest comes in the backdrop of threats by railway trade unions to go on strike. The unions are meeting on Thursday for a final decision. They complain that despite two different meetings with President Sirisena, their demands have not been heeded. The Government has, however, taken up the position that the demands would be examined by a salary anomalies committee. A consequent delay is irking the trade unions.

Interestingly, the Transport Ministry under whom the Sri Lanka Railways come, has been playing little or no role over the strike threats. The Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, received a snub from his ministerial colleagues at the cabinet meeting on Tuesday. He had proposed that the qualifying age for three wheeler scooter drivers be raised from the existing 18 to 35. The proposal was shot down. Ministers decided that the existing age should remain. President Sirisena too backed the move. A Transport Ministry official said the idea behind the Minister’s move was to minimise hazards caused by three-wheeler scooters being driven by young drivers and also to encourage the youth to take up skilled jobs instead of merely driving a taxi around.

However, the Ministry has so far failed to address some of the major issues caused by three wheeler drivers on roads. Police say after buses, and especially private buses, three wheeler scooter drivers are the biggest offenders and brazenly violate traffic laws. Their carelessness has cost many deaths but an Authority set up to regulate and control them was put on hold after the drivers protested. Worse still, Police say a vast number of the drivers are operating without a licence but the detections have been low.

Overall, continued governance and the need to remain together for this purpose has been the glue that has bonded both the SLFP and the UNP to go the full tenure of their coalition. Yet, they are being rocked by many an issue. This week, LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) or cooking gas shot up to a new high. Needless to say that it will snowball into prices of a variety of consumer items –packets of rice and curry, string hoppers and hoppers among them. That it would contribute in no small measure to the cost of living is quite clear.

The other question is whether the billions that will be poured into hurried “vote winning” development projects will further hurt the economy. Already the depreciation of the US dollar in terms of the Sri Lanka rupee has reached Rs 162, or almost Rs. 163. Strikes and protests are continuing to hit the economy. So has the mounting levels of bribery and corruption. Thus, the issue is not whether the PC elections should come first and the presidential election thereafter. Both will undoubtedly be a test of strength for the coalition partners.

An early PC polls is only advancing the clock. Will that happen? Or Will it not, in the light of the time table not being ready? These are some of the questions to which the public would seek answers.