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Commissioner cancels elections in 60 local bodies

Legal wrangles could affect voter turnout

The focus of political attention has been the local government elections these past few weeks, but now the contest between the government and the opposition for control of the country’s local authorities has been thrown into disarray due to a plethora of court rulings.
This week, the Commissioner of Elections postponed polls to 60 local bodies. His contention was that there was on-going legal action pertaining to elections in these bodies and that it would be prudent to postpone the polls to avoid unnecessary expenses, if the court were to reschedule the polls.

The opposition parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) did not take kindly to this. They argued that the Commissioner appears to have presupposed the outcome of the cases and believed he should have proceeded with election arrangements instead.
In the meantime, the courts were to make their own pronouncements. Elections to several local bodies were prevented because of interim injunctions, the latest being those issued by the Court of Appeal against conducting polls in 19 local bodies in Jaffna and Kilinochchi.

Even the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – which is desperately trying to minimise the embarrassment caused by having its nomination lists being rejected in a record number of councils through a series of legal proceedings – found the postponements unnerving.
Minister Keheliya Rambukwella was to say on Thursday that the UPFA too was ‘confused’ because elections were being postponed at various times by both courts and the Commissioner of Elections and asserted that the ruling party was very keen to have all polls as scheduled.
The first casualty of all these legal wrangles would of course be the voter turnout. Sri Lankans are already suffering from election fatigue, having gone through a series of provincial polls in 2009 and presidential and general elections in 2010.

Even at the 2010 general elections, voter turnout was at an all-time low and many voters would have to dragged kicking and screaming to the polling booths at the March 17 polls, distracted as they already are by the more ‘important’ cricket World Cup.
Even the political leadership of the major parties do not appear to be that keen to indulge in aggressive campaigning as they did in 2010 and this is evident by the sparse campaign appearances by the top stalwarts of the UPFA, the UNP and the JVP.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, usually someone who relishes the campaign trail, has not attended many campaign rallies for the local polls. As head-of-state that is understandable, given his many responsibilities, but even other heavyweights of the UPFA have been conspicuous by their absence.
While some ministers – such as Nimal Siripala de Silva and Dallas Alahapperuma – have taken the lead in the campaign, other usually vociferous campaigners such as Prime Minister D M Jayaratne and Maithripala Sirisena, for example, have been choosy in their appearances.
In the UNP camp, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe did engage in quite a bit of electioneering, but he has flown overseas in the midst of the campaign, again prompting bitter criticism from those opposed to him within the party.

In Wickremesinghe’s absence, Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya has been thrown into the limelight and is doing a commendable job despite his advancing years, keeping a punishing schedule. Another who has seized the opportunity is Wickremesinghe’s rival for the party leadership, Sajith Premadasa.
Premadasa has upped the ante recently in his campaign rhetoric, defiantly proclaiming that a ‘Premadasa era’ will dawn for the UNP at the dawn of the Sinhala New Year, a reference to the April 12 deadline by which the UNP should elect its new party officials, including the party leader.
This is a new paradigm for Premadasa who until very recently was fighting shy of formally announcing his ambitions to be party leader. Now at least, the gauntlet has been thrown and how Wickremasinghe responds remains to be seen.

The Premadasa camp, however, received a rude shock on Thursday when his de facto ‘campaign manager’ for the leadership battle, Bodhi Ranasinghe passed away suddenly. Ranasinghe, a former Wickremasinghe ally, had switched loyalties lately and was at the forefront of Premadasa’s campaign.
His sudden demise will cause a jolt in Premadasa’s bid for the party leadership, for Ranasinghe was a crucial link in wooing Wickremesinghe loyalists and in attempting to convince them that Premadasa, in the long run, was a better bet to lead the UNP than the tried and tested Wickremasinghe.
The JVP, meanwhile, announced this week that it had taken a policy decision not to forge alliances with other major parties claiming that on the occasions that it did so, they had always been taken for a ride by their erstwhile political bedfellows.

Indeed, the JVP once withdrew its presidential election candidate Nihal Galappaththi because Chandrika Kumaratunga promised to abolish the executive presidency in six months – a presidency which is thriving and well-entrenched even today.
It also did support Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidature for the presidency in 2005 only to be disillusioned with President Rajapaksa’s support for the itinerant Wimal Weerawansa and his newly-formed Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP).

Even the JVP’s alliance with former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka’s presidential candidacy was not entirely a bed of roses. Fonseka is now in jail and the JVP has found it hard to champion his cause indefinitely and has been in recent times reluctant to give priority to the former Army Commander.
However, it must be noted that the JVP has also gained from its coalition tactics, most notably at the 2004 general elections where it entered candidates on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led alliance and garnered 39 seats in Parliament, a number far in excess of its popular vote base.

Therefore, the JVP realises that it is crunch time. With the ruling UPFA having a steamroller majority in Parliament and a popular President and the UNP in extreme disarray, it may still not be too late for the JVP to carve its own niche in the local political scenario. This is what it is now attempting.
With less than three weeks for the polls though, we may see more legal battles and postponements rather than campaign rallies. With the cricket World Cup also becoming more interesting during that period, the stage is set for a lacklustre and lukewarm election, despite all the hype.