A huge election poster in Sri Lankan capital Colombo for local government elections on Feb. 10. (ucanews.com photo)
Sri Lankans will vote on Feb. 10 in local government elections contested by 30 political parties, including the main ethnic and religion-based parties, and more than 100 independent groups.
These are elections that ought to have been held at least two years ago but were repeatedly postponed on various technical grounds. The main reason, it is widely believed, is that the government did not have the political will to hold them.
The two main parties in the government alliance, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), will be contesting the polls as rivals. This has caused stresses within the alliance. The parties, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena respectively, will face a formidable third contestant, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) backed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and also known as the Sri Lanka People's Front.
The outcome of the elections, although for local government, will be significant as they come at the mid-point of the national election cycle. The last presidential and general elections were held in 2015 and the next are scheduled for 2020.
The SLPP, which has become the vehicle for the joint opposition led by Rajapaksa, has been stating that voters should simply consider whether they are pro-government or anti-government when casting their votes. A poor performance by the two parties forming the government alliance would therefore be construed by the joint opposition as a rejection of the government and its policies on all major issues, not simply ones pertaining to local government.
Among the key issues will be the government's reconciliation process, which has two primary components — constitutional reform that will ensure improved sharing of power between the ethnic majority and minorities, and transitional justice that will ensure accountability for rights violations in Sri Lanka's three-decade-long war.
Both issues have evoked considerable political controversy. A weak performance by the alliance parties would be construed as a rejection of constitutional reform and transitional justice measures taken by the government.
Until the declaration of local government elections two months ago, the government was making slow and shaky progress on both constitutional reform and transitional justice.
This included a highly contested report by the Constitutional Assembly's steering committee, which presented options for the most contentious issues in the constitutional reform process, including the questions of whether Sri Lanka would remain a unitary state or move in the direction of a federal state, and the foremost status of Buddhism in the constitution.
Both options evoked outrage from nationalist sections of the majority Sinhalese population, with the highest levels of the Buddhist hierarchy taking positions that it would be better not to have constitutional reform at all.
In recognition of the politically sensitive nature of constitutional reform and transitional justice, and of their vulnerability to being exploited by nationalists, the government put both issues on the back-burner from the time that local elections were declared.
Other national issues have taken center stage. The most prominent is the Central Bank bond scam in which the former governor of the central bank and a former finance government minister have been implicated. This has been an ironic reversal as the government's main campaign at the national elections of 2015, when it was in opposition, focused on good governance and fighting corruption.
Speaking to members of a youth parliament recently, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said the constitutional reform process would move forward again after the local elections.
Mano Tittawella, secretary-general of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms who functions under the Prime Minister's Office, gave an optimistic view of the post-election scenario while addressing a meeting of district reconciliation committees composed of religious clergy, government officials, police and civil society members.
He said that apart from the Office of Missing Persons, which has been established in law, two more reconciliation mechanisms promised by the government, the Office of Reparations and the Truth Seeking Commission, would be presented to parliament and the general public after the elections. He said draft laws on outlawing enforced disappearances and a replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act would be enacted in the coming months.
Such optimistic scenarios will only be possible if the government alliance parties do well in the elections. If the SLPP does well and captures a majority of local authorities, the government's ability to move forward on controversial issues will be crippled.
This would make it especially difficult for the government to move forward on constitutional reform, which the joint opposition has described as paving the way to division of the country, and on transitional justice, which has been described as punishing the gallant soldiers who won the war.
However, the odds are that this scenario will not unfold as local elections in Sri Lanka have traditionally seen parties in government prevail.
Voters have traditionally been pragmatic in realizing that local government authorities are dependent on central government for their funds. They tend to vote for candidates from ruling parties who will be able to provide them with the local government amenities they require.
Hopefully, despite the propaganda of the joint opposition, this election will not prove to be an exception. As the UNP and SLFP are in alliance at central government level, the post-election scenario should see them forming alliances at local government level to outnumber the joint opposition in local authorities and hence form the administration.
The central challenge for the government will be to make the best use of the opportunity that the UNP-SLFP alliance has brought. These two parties have governed the country for the past six decades in turns. Each of them in opposition has generally opposed what the other proposed in government, particularly in regard to ethnic conflict, leading to Sri Lanka becoming embroiled in three decades of war, human losses and lost economic opportunities.
The unique opportunity that the country now has is that these two parties are in government together. After the elections, their task will be to ensure that they continue to work together to ensure that they resolve those problems they have not been able to resolve on their own.
Dr. Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He is a regular weekly political columnist for newspapers both in Sri Lanka and internationally. Perera is a specialist in identifying the multiple perspectives that exist in conflict situations and promoting better understanding among conflict parties. He holds a Doctor of Law degree from Harvard Law School and a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard College.