The decision to postpone local elections is a dangerous moment for Sri Lankan democracy
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s refusal to fund local elections sets a dangerous precedent that puts Sri Lankan democracy at risk. If the government is serious about political reform, voters need to have their voices heard.
The National Election Commission informed the Sri Lankan Supreme Court last week that local elections planned for March 9 would be indefinitely postponed because of a lack of available funds.
The commission’s hand was forced by the Wickremesinghe government’s refusal to provide the 10 billion rupees (US$28 million) needed to fund the elections. According to the commission, the Treasury also refused to fund the printing of ballot papers, fuel, or police protection for polling booths.
Under Sri Lankan law, local elections are supposed to be held every four years and were last held in 2018. Last year the government announced the poll would be delayed until early 2023.
The postponement has led to protests in the capital Colombo.
Thousands of supporters of the opposition National People’s Power party hit the streets and marched toward the president’s residence. The protest was met with teargas and water cannon by police, with 15 people reported injured.
This isn’t Wickremesinghe’s first attempt to delay the poll.
The Election Commission has reported 20 “complaints on incidents of interference” from the government and its allies, which are attempts to delay elections.
The government has also been accused of writing to district secretaries ordering them not to accept deposits for the poll. The letter, sent by a secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Local Government, was eventually withdrawn because of a public backlash.
Wickremesinghe himself has continuously argued that the country cannot afford elections because of the ongoing economic crisis.
Last week, the president warned that “we will not have a country if the economy does not develop,” adding: “Is it possible to keep the constitution without losing the country? Only if the country is protected can the constitution be protected.”
Wickremesinghe has also sought to obfuscate the situation, accusing the commission of not having made a decision on whether to hold the election.
The chairman of the Election Commission, Nimal Punchihewa, has refuted this, confirming that three commissioners had given their consent for the poll and that this was witnessed by both the chairman and another commissioner.
Under Section 104 of Sri Lankan law, three commissioners are required for any meeting of the commission to decide on electoral matters.
Attempts at delaying the election shouldn’t be a surprise. The poll loomed as a major test for the Wickremesinghe government.
This is the first opportunity for Sri Lankans to vote since the economy collapsed and mass protests resulted in the end of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime. It is widely expected his successor will face a voter backlash for the government’s harsh austerity policies and violent treatment of protesters.
Wickremesinghe was elected by the Sri Lankan Parliament, not the public, in July last year after Rajapaksa fled the country.
Wickremesinghe is not popular. His party failed to win a single seat in the last national election, and he instead clung on to his seat under the country’s party-list system, which reflects overall votes polled.
He is also widely seen as an establishment candidate, having been a six-time prime minister. Wickremesinghe also has close links with the Rajapaksas, becoming president with the support of that family’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party.
For these reasons, many Sri Lankans argue that Wickremesinghe has no mandate to make important decisions on the economy, including the finalization of a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.
There is no question a poor election result could threaten the president’s ability to negotiate a favorable deal with the IMF. But while economic recovery is important, there may be larger issues at stake. Refusing to hold elections before the economy recovers sets a dangerous precedent, one that is corrosive to Sri Lankan democracy.
With no guarantee the Sri Lankan economy will stabilize before national elections due next year, there is a real threat Wickremesinghe may use the state of the economy to avoid losing power.
It is vital then that Wickremesinghe put democracy over politics.
The president should cease interfering with the independent Election Commission and release funds needed to hold local elections as per Sri Lankan law. The election should be held on March 9, and the results should be respected by the government.
The people have a right to protest about important economic and political issues the country faces. The government should also allow Sri Lankans to protest peacefully without responding with state violence.
After years of corruption and malgovernance, it is clear Sri Lankans desire meaningful change to address the economic and political problems the country faces.
The people deserve to have their voices heard.