A ‘Great Game,’ if we may borrow a term from the history of British military strategy to retain the Empire’s stranglehold of India, is clearly afoot in this island of ours. This relates to the local elections that must be completed by February according to the present law. But government politicians who are obviously afraid, nay terrified, of facing any election while memories are yet fresh of the agony people faced during what we called our annus horribilis in this space the previous Sunday, keep making statements suggesting that this election may not be held. This despite the election process now begun and the necessary wheels rolling. The executive, both in the presidency and in the legislature, are very well aware that any electoral test of their popularity at this time will at best be near fatal. Hence the jiggery-pokery we’re seeing now.
There is no question in anybody’s mind that the SLPP has clearly lost its mandate with Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing in disgrace and Mahinda forced out of the prime ministry. But all things are impermanent as the Buddha said and we have been treated recently to images of GR enjoying himself at an animal park in Dubai, MR making the odd statement in parliament and outside and Namal baby showing his face in public now and then. Basil Rajapaksa, of course, is very much in the thick of things running the affairs of the pohottuwa party behind the scenes. This has to do with ongoing arrangements between between the SLPP and the UNP relating to the local elections. Though nominations have been called and some deposits made, “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings” as The Island editorially commented a couple of days back.
The people, busy as they are in the struggle to survive today’s cost of living, are not wildly enthusiastic about any election. Their disgust with the system is explicit. They have scant respect for the various local authorities rendering them little services in return for the rates they pay. No doubt the president’s recent pronouncement that the number of councilors from the municipalities down to the humblest pradeshiya sabhas must be reduced from about 8,000 at present to 4,000 has struck a responsive chord. The public are resentful of the paid leeches sitting in the various councils, many of them fattening on corruption, and would dearly love to see their numbers slashed if we must have them at all. But all ruses to put off the elections for reasons of costs – most logical in the context of today’s cash strapped economy – and youth representation etc. are altogether suspect.
The opposition, be it the JVP-NPP widely perceived to be gaining increasing electoral support, or the main opposition SJB of Sajith Premadasa, are all too well aware of the government’s discomfiture over holding the local elections. Hence their effort to ensure that the due elections are held in time and forestall any attempt to the contrary. President Ranil Wickremesinghe met the Elections Commission last week and asked its members “to unite,” it was reported on Friday. This obviously relates to the local elections and the request made strongly suggests the existence of two points of view within the commission on whether the elections are to be held as required or not.
Any statement from the president clarifying that the elections will be held come what may will clear the air and nail any ambiguities. But as recently as last week, we had UNP Chairman Wajira Abeywardene saying the country had no money to fund the election, reportedly Rs. 10 billion, and that money will have to be printed to pay for it. Such a statement from the UNP chairman would not have been made without his party leader’s authority. Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera went on record asking the government and the finance ministry to immediately provide funds for the purchase of farmers’ paddy before spending on elections for the “sake of the rice-eating people of the country.” Other government functionaries have also thrown their own two cents worth. So what is the people to make of all this?
The president last week made very clear that he will not be part of any local government poll. In any vigorous democracy, an elected leader whether he be a president or prime minister, must be the leader of the whole country and not just of his own party. Thus the president’s assertion is most welcome. If the election is in fact held – and the country is still in doubt of whether this will be so or not – Wickremesinghe’s statement indicates that he will not be campaigning either for his own UNP or the SLPP which elected him head of government and head of state a few months ago. The state-controlled Daily News quoted him on Thursday saying his “mandate” (such as it was) was not to go for an election but pull the country out of the abyss into which it had fallen. He told senior leaders of his party on Wednesday that he will chair the UNP Working Committee meeting which will decide on running at the elections “only as a tradition.”
All this only makes the confusion most confounded. Adding to this is the court action filed by a retired colonel that a section of the media called a GR confidante, challenging the holding of the election. It seems clear that the people will only know whether the election will be held or not, not even when nominations are received, but only when they walk up to the ballot boxes.