February 11, 2018

Sri Lanka’s revamped polls

The local elections taking place in Sri Lanka on Saturday are the first polls to be held after the recent constitution amendments changed the system to a mixed electoral model. They are also the first to be conducted under the current coalition government, which is facing internal discord.

The polls will have significant impact on the future of reforms in the country.

Background

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of India. Known until 1972 as Ceylon, the country has a rich cultural and historical background. The island saw the rise and fall of several kingdoms since 200 BCE before it was turned into a British colony in 1802. Sri Lanka was the first Asian country to institute universal suffrage in 1931, while still under British rule. The country gained independence in 1948.

For 26 years, from 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was inundated by civil war while the government was engaged in conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist terrorist organisation. According to US Government estimates, there were more than 480,000 internally displaced people in the nation in 2016. As of 2017, the country is home to an ethnically diverse population of 21.2 million people, including the majority Sinhalese people (74.9%), as well as Sri Lankan Tamil, Sri Lankan Moors, and Indian Tamil peoples. Buddhism is the official religion of the country, however Hindus, Muslims, and Roman Catholics are significant minorities.

Mahindra Rajapaksa is the President who saw the end of the civil war. He was thrown from power in the 2015 presidential elections by Sirisena, who was backed by the United National Party (UNP). The UNP won the parliamentary elections the same year and leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was declared Prime Minister. On its election, the new administration promised to investigate war crimes, crackdown on corruption, and focus on devolving power. It has since taken some steps towards transitional justice, right to information, and restricting presidential powers.

Local elections have not taken place since 2011. The elections, meant to be held in 2015, were delayed, reportedly for the delimitation process necessary for a changed electoral system.

Analysis

Sri Lanka’s local government elections commenced on Saturday (10th February). The polls are the first to take place after the country’s 20th amendment to the constitution, which was enacted in 2017. The amendment stated that all local elections would take place on the same date, determined by the Parliament.

The current mixed electoral model was finalised by the Elections Commission in late 2017. In this model, the results are determined using a combination of “first-past-the-post” voting (60%), and a closed list with proportional representation (40%). The number of candidates allowed has been doubled since the last elections in 2011: approximately 8,350 members are running for 341 available positions in municipal councils, urban councils, and divisional councils (pradeshiya sabha). 25% of the available positions will be reserved for women.

Prior to the polls, the Daily News reported the deployment of military to “vulnerable points” across the country, as well as over 65,000 policemen, according to the Hindu. However, observers such as the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) have noted that these elections have not seen the violent run up so characteristic of previous elections. There have been no campaign-related deaths. The polls opened at 7 am on Saturday.

Analysts estimated a high voter turnout given the significance of these polls: the first to take place after the constitutional amendment. These are also the first polls to take place since the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition came into power in 2015. The two main parties of the current coalition government are competing against one another: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) chaired by President Sirisena, and the United National Front (UNF), led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Also contesting is the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), headed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The run-up to the elections saw what some have described as a “mud-slinging competition” between members of the UPFA, wherein the SLFP and UNF blamed each other for the lack of progress made during their term with regards to issues such as corruption and the prosecution of war crimes. Sirisena also accused UNP leaders of corruption.

Commentators have said that the UNP is likely to lead the poll. Shailesh Kumar, director at political risk consultants Eurasia Group told Reuters that should these elections result in a further consolidation of the UNP’s power, it would be “net positive for reforms” due to the reduction of political obstacles. Meanwhile, Acuity Stockbrokers CEO Prashan Fernando has expressed his belief that a continued coalition between the two parties even at a local level, would benefit Sri Lankan markets.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the peaceful nature of these elections may show the beginning of a positive trend in Sri Lankan democratic process. However, for the current stability to continue, leaders Sirisena and Wickremesinghe will have to put aside their differences. The UPFA’s failure could be exploited by other parties such as Rajapaksa’s SLPP. The Sri Lankan government has yet to fulfil the promises on which they were elected. We believe that post-elections, the administration’s main focus should be on continuing post-war reformation. 

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