Local Government elections: A dilemma for the Government | Sunday Observer

Local Government elections: A dilemma for the Government

15 January, 2023

Apparently, there are pros and cons to postponing elections. On the one hand, postponing elections may be necessary in certain circumstances to ensure the well-being of the public. For example, if there is a natural disaster, such as an outbreak of a contagious disease or public unrest, postponing the election may be the best course of action to prevent any possible damage.

Although there is currently no such situation, the country is currently going through the worst economic crisis in known history. Someone can argue that the current gruesome economic environment is worse than a natural disaster where the entire citizenry is undergoing unprecedented hardships.

On the other hand, postponing elections can also have negative consequences. For one thing, it can lead to political instability and uncertainty as the government is obliged to hold timely elections, which is one of the most important fundamental principles of a democracy. Postponing an election can create a vacuum that can be exploited by those with ulterior motives, leading to chaos and conflict.

Public trust

Additionally, postponing elections can also lead to a loss of public trust in the electoral process and the government. If elections are postponed repeatedly or without good reason, it can give the impression that the government is trying to manipulate the outcome or cling to power. This can further erode public confidence in the government and democratic institutions.

Overall, the decision to postpone elections should be based on a careful consideration of the potential benefits and drawbacks for the country. In situations where the well-being of the citizenry and the country are at risk, postponing the election may be the best course of action.

However, the pertinent question is: is the time appropriate to hold an election? Not only considering the direct cost of Rs. 10 billion estimated by the Election Commission but also the indirect costs of intense campaigning by the candidates, the prevailing dreadful state of affairs can be worsened.

The previous local government in 2018 elected over 7,600 members for 341 local authorities, where the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has amassed the majority with 241 local government bodies with 3369 members. The public, on the other hand, believes that the number of council members is far too large. The general opinion throughout the country is that most of the local politicians are corrupt and seek nefarious means to earn a living.

Two factions exist currently, representing contradictory opinions about the impending local government election. The popular public belief is that this is not the best time to hold an election for the third and lowest tier of the government’s administrative machinery. They opine that spending a colossal amount of money is a waste as the election of local government members cannot make any difference to the existing burning issues.

Meanwhile, the other faction, consisting of opposition political parties, is making a huge fuss about the election and accusing the government of attempting to postpone it by using subterfuge. They allege that the government is intentionally trying to defer elections for fear of losing heavily to the electorate.

Presently, seemingly only the opposition political parties, their allies, and close party followers are campaigning hard for local government elections. Visibly, a vast majority of the general public does not show any kind of enthusiasm for going through an expensive polling process. Naturally, they have much more issues on their plates than concentrating on elections, which they presume is worthless.

Holding timely elections is the foremost obligation of a democratic government, no doubt. Throughout the post-independence era, elections have always disrupted the flow of peaceful public existence. The village-based grassroot levels, particularly during a local government election, can cause significant distractions and societal divisions when the need of the hour is unity. In an environment where everyone struggles to survive, these distractions can cause a heavy burden on the economy. With the existing system, the competition among candidates, sometimes of the same political party, is fierce and ferocious. This can create disharmony among the voters when the dire need today is for harmony and togetherness to come out of the deep pit.

The opposition political parties, like any other member of the citizenry, understand that even if they win an overwhelming victory, they will be unable to influence the national policy framework or the ruling government on changes.

Sole intention

For them, the sole intention of forcing the election is to measure their strengths in their respective constituencies, individually and collectively. This was the customary approach of every opposition party in local government elections since independence. The government, on the other hand, seems to subtly attempt to postpone, citing various reasons, including a lack of funds due to the prevailing economic disaster. They know the government is not very popular currently among the voters.

They also know that they are slowly but surely regaining public confidence, as the long lines that existed since March 2022 have disappeared and the inflation keeps going down. The government has also found temporary solutions to several other pressing public issues.

Also, the media reports revealed that the foremost authority on elections in the country, the four-member election commission, had not been able to reach a unanimous decision on the matter yet. Even the meeting held with the president also ended without a decision, according to media reports.

Meanwhile, a writ petition against the election was filed in the Supreme Court, asking for a court order suspending the election’s conduct to be issued to the Election Commission. In turn, three intervention petitions were filed seeking the dismissal of the writ, making the situation more complicated.

The government is currently between the devil and the deep blue sea. It must choose the right course of action and decide whether to support conducting elections and get away from opposition criticism or postpone it temporarily. It is no secret that the prevailing cash crunch will remain as is for an indefinite period. The key responsibility of the government is to make sure the essentials, such as salaries of public employees, pension payments, and other welfare expenditures, are provided without interruption. According to the president himself, the government is barely managing these payments with many difficulties.

Although the opposition is adamantly forcing the government to conduct elections, the fact remains that an election cannot be beneficial to public welfare in any manner at this time. The government claims that holding an election will worsen the country’s already dire situation. They point out that elections were postponed many times in the past by governments for far less justifiable reasons.

Direct impact

The general public is thinking along the same lines. Apart from the direct impact on tourism for several continuous months, the election campaign can slow down the prevailing snail-paced upward trend of the economy. Also, the accusations and counteraccusations, customary mudslinging, and even possible violent incidents will be reported in the foreign media, tarnishing the already severely damaged image of the country.

Appointing members to local government institutions is a fundamental requirement in the country because they are responsible for providing a variety of public services such as construction and maintenance of roads, sanitization, waste collection, and libraries, to name a few.

The public is aware of this fact, and they are not against elections. They also know that they struggle to survive with enormous pressure on finances. However, the pertinent question the country asks is whether the time is right to appoint such authorities by spending a colossal amount of state funds as the impact they can make on national issues is minimal and negligible.

On the surface, only opposition politicians make the fiercest effort to have an election within the next few months. It is abundantly clear and visible that all their effort is aimed either at gauging their respective party strength or building individual political images.

Only a very few politicians are genuinely concerned about the real-time situation and public grievances.