Sri Lanka may hold provincial polls in early 2022

The announcement comes days after Shringla pushed for early conduct of elections during his Colombo visit

Updated - October 10, 2021 08:57 am IST

Published - October 09, 2021 10:28 pm IST - COLOMBO

Sri Lanka will hold elections to its Provincial Councils early in 2022 after amending a relevant law to revert to the Proportional Representation electoral system, the government has indicated.

The government’s intent to conduct the long-delayed polls became apparent in a meeting of a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms held on Friday. Following the meeting, Opposition legislator and Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) Leader Mano Ganesan said Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa had agreed to the conduct of polls in the “first quarter of 2022”.

The announcement comes days after Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla raised the early conduct of provincial polls in his meetings with the Sri Lankan leadership, during an official visit.

Legal impediment

However, the prospect of Sri Lanka’s provincial elections hinges on amending the Provincial Councils Elections Act, needed to revert to the Proportional Representation representation system that was followed until the former Maithripala Sirisena — Ranil Wickremesinghe government in 2017 amended election laws to shift to a Mixed-Member Proportional Representation electoral system, based on a delimitation exercise. With a report on new electoral boundaries failing to get parliamentary approval, authorities hit a roadblock to holding the polls to the nine provincial councils whose terms lapsed in 2018 and 2019. They have been under the respective Governors’ rule since.

Addressing the media, Mr. Mano Ganesan said: “The government appears confident of being able to pass the amendment and has instructed the subject minister to take necessary steps. Although we are in Opposition, we would support such an amendment in Parliament in the interest of holding the provincial polls without further delay.”

In 2019, Opposition MP and Jaffna legislator of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) M.A. Sumanthiran presented a private member’s Bill seeking early polls to provincial councils under the old system, by repealing the 2017 legislation. This was a shift from TNA’s earlier position backing the 2017 amendment for electoral reforms that critics cite as the main reason for delayed polls.

The Rajapaksa administration — including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself — has in the past underscored the need to hold provincial elections without further delay, but there has been no follow up action.

In addition to the legal amendment that is required to proceed, there is a cost factor that the government would consider, especially when Sri Lanka’s economy is reeling under the impact of the pandemic.

Not just India, but several international actors have endorsed early polls in Sri Lanka. It also found mention in the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March this year. The resolution, backed by 22 member countries, called upon the Government of Sri Lanka to “fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population, and encouraging the Government to respect local governance, including through the holding of elections for provincial councils, and to ensure that all provincial councils, including the northern and eastern provincial councils, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.”

Although the provincial system came as a response to Tamils’ demand for greater political power, the councils have proved important for all political parties, including in the Sinhala majority south, to keep their machinery well-oiled at the grassroot level. This, despite the Centre — across governments — remaining reluctant to part with land and police powers. The Councils have some legislative powers — by passing statutes — in areas such as agriculture, education, health, housing, and road transport.

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