Opposition and civil society criticizes delay of local body polls in Sri Lanka

Local polls were to be held last year but were delayed due to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. After another postponement was announced in February, judicial intervention led to the polls being scheduled for April 25

March 14, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe. File Photo

Last month, on February 24, Sri Lanka’s National Election Commission announced the postponement of local body elections due to a lack of funds. Elections to the 340 local councils were scheduled to be held on March 9. On Sunday, March 12, the Election Commission wrote to President Ranil Wickremesinghe asking him—as finance minister, a position he also holds—to release the funds required to conduct the local body polls that are supposed to be held every four years. The elections will now be held on April 25 after judicial intervention.

The last local body elections in Sri Lanka took place in 2018 and new local bodies were supposed to be elected in 2022. However, the elections were postponed at the height of the economic crisis last year. The Wickremesinghe government cited the financial crunch to justify the postponement.

The elections, when they take place, will be the first since the four-month-long mass anti-government protests that forced Wickremesinghe’s predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign as president. However, Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) is widely perceived as a supporter of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Perumana Podujana party.

The announcement of the delay in the regular democratic exercise received strong reactions from opposition parties, civil society groups, as well as international groups like the Asian Network for Free Elections.

Soon after the announcement, on February 26, the opposition National People’s Power (NPP) launched a massive protest against the decision and thousands of protestors marched in Colombo, facing brutal police action including the firing of tear gas and water cannons. At least 15 people were injured, and one NPP worker died.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) in Sri Lanka questioned the delay, saying that it was a “direct violation of voter rights,” Economy Next  reported.

Even before the delay was officially announced, the Sri Lankan media had reported instances of malpractice and interference in the run-up to polls. The  Bar Association of Sri Lanka released a statement on February 18 saying that there was a “concerted effort” to prevent the elections from being held. According to its statement: “The BASL emphasizes that all elections are a vital part of Sri Lanka’s democratic process and must not be hindered. […] The BASL notes several decisions by the government in recent weeks, purportedly aimed at managing public funds, have had the effect of preventing the Elections Commission from conducting the elections.”

On March 3, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court issued an interim order restraining authorities from withholding funds for the local polls, which are reportedly set to cost LKR 10 billion (US$ 30 million). The order, which prevents state functionaries like the Finance Secretary and Attorney General from withholding the funds for elections, was issued while the court was hearing a petition filed by legislator Ranjith Madduma Bandara, the general secretary of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the main opposition party in the country. Subsequently, April 25 was announced as the date for elections.

For nearly a year, Sri Lanka has been reeling under a severe economic crisis marked by shortages of essentials like food, fuel, and medicines. In the beginning of this year, the Wickremesinghe government introduced a new income tax policy, widely seen as an attempt to appease the IMF in order to secure a bailout loan. Since coming to power, the five-time premier and now president has ruled with an iron fist—scuttling dissent, arresting activists, and shifting the tax burden on to the working classes.