28 June 2018

Provincial Councils, anyone?

The terms of the North-Central, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils expired in September 2017 and those of the Central, Northern and Northwestern Provincial Councils will end this September.  As of now, there’s no sign that the Government is interested in holding these elections. 

Perhaps being decimated at the local government elections in February 2018 has made the Yahapalana bigwigs wary of facing the people. Perhaps they feel it’s best to wait for a winner-takes-much General Election of a winner-takes-even-more Presidential Election rather than risk another debacle that would take away whatever oomph is left in the regime, we don’t know for sure.  The government is sitting on the matter, that’s clear. 

The Chairman, Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya is not pleased. He knows what’s happening. He has summoned representatives of political parties and told them that he had informed the Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faizer Mustapha not to delay the PC elections any longer, it is reported.  It is also reported that he had vowed ‘to take stern action’ if elections were postponed.  

Perhaps this ‘stern action’ includes taking the matter up in courts, we do not know.  In such an eventuality what the courts would determine we do not know either. I wouldn’t bet on either Deshapriya or the courts.  

The Yahapalanists are terrified of facing the people. This is clear. Those who want to oust the Yahapalanists, i.e. the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, don’t seem interested in provincial council elections either, but for different reasons. 

They have gauged the temper of the electorate. They can factor in a further decline in the popularity of this regime. They can do the relevant arithmetic. Perhaps they are confident that they are politically poised to capture power in a major election. ‘Why waste resources, then?’ they might have asked themselves. Makes sense. 

That, however, is politics as usual. More about power than about democracy. More about political fortunes than about basic principles.  We can talk about all relevant political forces being disinterested about the importance of holding elections on time. We can talk about how postponement costs those who do the postponing. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the SLFP were swept out in 1977. J.R. Jayewardene and the UNP caused a bloodbath in the eighties. The Maithri-Ranil coalition were humiliated in February 2010. However, there’s a small matter than is being ignored in all this.

Chairman of the SLPP, Prof G.L. Peiris, put a finger on it.  He said ‘people would question the practical need for provincial councils if the government delayed elections to them any further.’  Well, it is not that the people have not had reason to question the practical need for provincial councils until now. After all they were thrust down the people’s throat by a belligerent neighbor with a salute and courtesy from a weak leader, J.R. Jayewardene.  Peiris’ observation, however, is interesting, not because it might make the people ask questions, but the near absolute silence on the part of diehard devolutionists about the implications of not holding provincial councils.

The North Central, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa provinces did not dissolve and disappear from the map of Sri Lanka in the 10 months that have passed since the relevant provincial councils ceased to function.  It is unlikely, also, that the Central,Northern and Northwestern provinces will collapse into utter chaos or that there will be rampant famine, war and such.  

The point is, these provinces are not worse off than they were when the relevant PCs were functioning. A study into the before and after of it all would probably reveal that there are other factors which impact the wellbeing of the people and the economy of the area, and that the PCs are in fact far less relevant than they are made out to be (e.g. warranting an invasion, the imposition of constitutional amendment).  

Now the argument can be made that effectiveness has been blunted by not implementing the 13th Amendment to the letter. However, the counter argument can be made if unnecessary medicine does nothing the remedy is not to prescribe a bigger dosage. 

The second and more telling point is that this delay in holding elections has not prompted any howls of protests from those who treat devolution as an article of faith. They are not the least bit bothered, it seems.  But why not?  

Have they dropped the conviction that devolution (plus) is a non-negotiable for reconciliation and peace? Have they found other income sources, those who considered devolution ranting their bread and butter? We don’t know.

However, when the previous regime held provincial council elections in a staggered manner, we did here the so-called civil society cry out in horror about democratic principles being violated. One can’t help imagining what they would have said had the previous regime postponed PC elections. It would not have been about democracy alone that they would have screamed. They would have tossed in devolution, reconciliation, majoritarianism and what not to spice up their agitational soup. 

So why, this silence?  Well, it looks like their thinking is shaped by the political logic of the Yahapalana government and in particular the UNP sections within it.   Is ‘Whatever Ranil says’ the framework within which they have to (or prefer to) operate? 

If they are not interested and if it doesn’t make any difference to the citizens (including those in the North and East), then why not scrap the 13th altogether? That’s where we are at.  The fortunes of parties and politicians do impact our lives, unfortunately, but if something positive were to come out of the postponement of provincial council elections, then let it be the acknowledgment that they really don’t matter. 

Let’s spell it out: a) provincial councils have no overwhelming impact to warrant their existence, b) the administrative apparatus despite flaws, delivered, c) no one is upset about elections not being held.  It’s time to take all this to the logical conclusion: repeal of the 13th. Less politicians to rob, less money wasted on bodies that do nothing of any serious consequences, a more healthy citizenry.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.