Asia-Pacific, Headlines

SRI LANKA: Gov’t on a Roll Hints at Early National Elections

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Oct 13 2009 (IPS) - Well before 1.7 million voters trooped to 1,485 polling stations on Oct. 10 to elect the 55 members of the Southern Provincial Council, it was a foregone conclusion that President Mahinda Rajapakasa would easily lead his United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government as the clear winner.

A voter's finger is marked with indelible ink after casting her vote. Credit: Dinidu de Alwis/

A voter's finger is marked with indelible ink after casting her vote. Credit: Dinidu de Alwis/

There was not doubt on anyone’s mind who the winner of the Council polls would be. "He is very popular, every one supports what he has done. I don’t think there is anyone to challenge him," Amila Hattotuwa, a voter, said on the eve of the election.

Sri Lank has eight functioning provincial councils whose members are elected every five years. The councils, set up as means to devolve power, have administrative authority over areas such as provincial agriculture, health, education, and provincial infrastructure, but have no power over foreign policy, security, judicial system, harbours and minerals and natural resources.

Elections for the provincial councils are held on separate dates Rajapakasa not only hails from Hambantota, one of the three districts comprising the province, but he is also riding a crest of popularity after finally crushing the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and ending the island’s quarter-of-a-century-old bloody civil war.

The only question foremost on everyone’s mind was by what margin Rajapaksa would sweep the polls in the deep south of the country, with its predominantly Sinhala voter base traditionally supportive of hard-line pro- nationalist leaders.

Government ministers touring the province on the eve of the elections predicted that it would be a rout. "We can get above 80 percent in some areas. In the last provincial elections (for the South Eastern Province), we got 70 percent," said Minister of Media Lakshman Yapa Abeyawardena. "There is nothing preventing us getting more this time."

Enthusiasm among the voters for the poll was a tad lower than among ruling party members like Abeyawardena. It was partly due to popular sentiments that the provincial councils had largely remained ineffective, since decision- making processes were concentrated mainly in the hands of the central government. Ironically, the councils came into effect with the 1987 Indo- Lanka accord between Sri Lanka and India as a power devolution mechanism to address minority grievances.

Despite the general lack of interest in the election, there was no lack of public support for Rajapakasa.

"We can go on the road without any fear — that in itself is a big change," Ransena Amarasinghe, a voter from Pittabadara, about 200 kilometres south of the capital, Colombo, told IPS. "We can now live in peace, and I don’t think anyone can challenge the President because he is the person who made that possible."

It was evident that the victory over the Tigers that had swayed voters into banking on a Rajapakasa-led administration. "Yes, I voted for the UNFPA, and it was because the President ended the war," Priynatha Sellehewa, a fisherman from Gandera in the Matara District, said.

The President’s popularity, according to his close associates, is a sure bet even for several national elections that are probably just months away. "Usually, a presidency loses popularity as the term wears on. This presidency is likely to be the opposite," Abeyawardena said.

Despite the overwhelming support for the administration, as reflected in the outcome of the just concluded elections, it still incurred the censure of opposition groups, which accused it of misappropriation of public property and intimidations.

It did not help that at least one major clash was reported during the run-up to last weekend’s election.

The national Election monitoring group, People’s Action For Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), in fact, said that compared to the last provincial vote for the southeastern Uva province, the number of poll-related violent incidents in the Southern Province was significantly higher.

PAFFREL data indicated that intimidations and coordinated attacks on political offices had increased from 87 during the run-up to the southeastern provincial elections to 151 prior to the southern provincial polls. Its last interim report before the polls said there were "more intra-party conflicts among the candidates of the same party when compared with previous provincial council elections."

But election monitors and journalists covering the election said that it was largely a peaceful poll. "No serious incidents were reported to PAFFREL on the day of the elections, and polling took place in a generally peaceful manner throughout the province," PAFFREL said in its election day report.

"There were no major incidents on the polling day; it was more or less peaceful," PAFFREL executive director Rohana Hettiarchchi said as polls closed. "But there were incidents reported during the run-up, so we can’t give this poll a clean bill." The monitoring group added that highest number of incidents, around 33, was reported on the day of the election.

Come election day, around 55 percent turned out to vote, according to PAFFREL. Voter turnout may not have been rousing, and the conduct of the election not entirely violence-free, but it was nonetheless satisfactory, observers said.

As the initial election results came in, the UPFA was on a roll. The coalition clinched 67 percent, or 800,000, of the votes, gaining 38 of 55 seats at the council. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) came a distant second, with 25 percent of the votes while the Marxist-oriented People’s Liberation Front came out third, with six percent.

The administration’s rousing victory at the elections is likely to be the starter’s gun for national elections, going by signals from the ruling coalition. There has been talk of presidential elections coming as early as next January, though Rajapaksa has two more years of his six-year term to complete.

Under Sri Lankan laws, presidential elections can be called four years into the President’s term. The current Parliament’s six-year term, however, runs out in April 2010, making parliamentary elections a certainty.

Abeyawardena said that the chances were high for a January presidential election, to be followed by Parliament elections around March next year in keeping with the trend of banking on the President’s popularity.

However, there have also been reports that Rajapaksa’s advisors are thinking against squandering two years of the current term by calling for early presidential elections in January 2010. Still, the government is preparing to present a vote-on-account — or the vote of Parliament for an amount enough to cover expenditure on various items for a part of the year — instead of a full budget in November, a clear indication that it is preparing for national elections next year.

"The budget will be presented after the general election," Abeyawardena predicted. The vote-on-account will secure funding for the government for three months.

Even opposition parties are also gearing up for the national elections, with the main UNP announcing in September the formation of a grand-opposition alliance with other parties.

The future political landscape is likely to get clearer in the next month, if and when Rajapaksa himself announces the conduct of an early national election. The voters in the south are certain that they have set the tone for the next year. "This is the best time for the government to go to polls; it is very popular," said voter Isuru Chintaka of Matara.

To the electorate such popularity is best put to good use by advancing their general welfare. "The war is over, and nothing is more important now than getting the country back on course," said Chintaka.

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