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    Amidst soaring rhetoric and 21 million promises

    October 17, 2019

    The contest for the presidential election due on November 16 has intensified with both the United National Party (UNP) and its contesting alliance, the National Democratic Front (NDF) as well as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) switching their campaigns in to top gear and several key events dominating the headlines this week.

    Among them was the ‘mini’ election to the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha. Elections were not held to this local council in February 2018 following a stay order by the Supreme Court in January 2018 after objections were raised by the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) against the rejection of their nomination papers.

    In August this year, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Prasanna Jayawardena, Murdhu Fernando and Vijith Malalgoda ordered the Elections Commission to accept the DUNF nominations list and hold the election for the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha immediately. Accordingly, polls were scheduled for October 11.

    The Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha forms part of the Bentara-Elpitiya electoral division and has been a stronghold of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in recent years. The SLPP organiser for this electoral division is actress Geetha Kumarasinghe, whose election to Parliament at the general election was challenged on the grounds of her being a dual citizen, an argument that was upheld by the Supreme Court, resulting in Kumarasinghe losing her seat in Parliament.

    Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha elections

    At the previous local council elections in 2011, the UPFA emerged victorious in the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha, polling 58.5 per cent of the vote and securing ten seats. The UNP polled 30.6 per cent of the vote, securing four seats in the fifteen-seat council. That election was held on the proportional representation basis. The voter turnout was 72 per cent at that election.

    At last week’s election, conducted on the hybrid first past the post and proportional representation systems, the SLPP swept the board, securing all seventeen wards and seventeen seats in the 29-member council, with 56.3 per cent of the vote. The United National Front (UNF) secured 24.3 per cent of the vote and seven seats.

    The UPFA, now the alliance headed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) polled 12.7 per cent of the vote and three seats while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) polled 5.8 per cent of the vote and won two seats. The voter turnout was a high seventy-nine per cent.

    The SLPP has been quick to herald a victory at the presidential election based on these results. It has pointed out that it has polled the required fifty per cent mark and more very easily. Its speakers at campaign rallies have noted that together the SLPP and the SLFP have polled an impressive sixty-nine per cent of the vote. Based on these results, it would be easy for SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa to emerge victorious at the presidential election, SLPP stalwarts have argued.

    The UNP has dismissed these claims as frivolous. It has argued that Elpitiya is to the SLPP what Colombo Central would be to the UNP: a pocket borough. Others in the UNP have dismissed the verdict at Elpitiya saying that the SLPP’s claims of winning the presidential election are similar to an ‘Avurudu Kumari’ at a village festival proclaiming victory at a Miss Universe contest.

    Despite the rhetoric, there are lessons for both the SLPP and the UNP, arguably more for the latter. While it is true that the SLPP’s victory at Elpitiya was convincing and was by a considerable margin, it is nevertheless a fact that the SLFP still polled 12.7 per cent of the vote, at a time when the SLPP and the SLPP have entered into an agreement that the latter will support the former at the presidential election.

    That is a reflection of the fact that grassroots SLFPers have, in effect, voted against the SLPP in Elpitiya. At a presidential election, where there is no SLFP candidate in the fray, some of them may well vote for the SLPP but there will be others who will also cast their vote against it. If that percentage were to be around five per cent or more, it could cost the SLPP dearly because rarely are presidential elections won by large margins.

    The UNP (and the NDF) has more to learn from the election results. The results indicate that there is momentum against the party in the south of the country. It is a fact that NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa’s strategy includes a massive endorsement from the North and East of the country and the major urban centres.

    However, if the swing in the rural hinterland of the South is significant- as it is in Elpitiya- votes in the North and East would not be sufficient to stem the tide. In a sense, it is better that the UNP has received this warning now, instead of the morning after, on November 17, so that it can work on strategies to overcome a massive swing in the South.

    Dual citizenship issue

    Another issue dominating the news this week was the Court of Appeal verdict in the case where SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s eligibility to contest the election was challenged. The Court of Appeal had dismissed the appeal unanimously and its eagerly awaited verdict was published on Tuesday.

    In its verdict, Justices Yasantha Kodagoda (President of the Court of Appeal), Arjuna Obeysekera and Mahinda Samayawardana have based their judgment on the finding that, in the absence of a Cabinet of ministers being appointed, the President does have the authority to exercise the powers of ministers. This was the key issue at stake in the case, where then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had signed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship certificate.

    In its verdict, the Court of Appeal said that during the time period where there is no Cabinet, the Constitution confers on the President any ministerial duty, as the repository of executive power of the people. Therefore, he had the power to sign the dual citizenship certificate of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2005.

    “During the intervening period of a few days between the new President assuming office and appointing the Cabinet of Ministers and subjects and functions assigned to such ministers, it is the view of this Court that the Constitution had conferred a duty on the President to be in charge of all such subjects and functions not assigned to any Minister,” the Court noted.

    However, the Court of Appeal also said the President should act during such an intervening period in a reasonable manner according to the Constitution. “It is not to say that the President can govern the country arbitrarily neglecting the appointment of the Cabinet of Ministers,” the Court said.

    The Court of Appeal also observed that the petition had been filed a few weeks before the election. “The Petitioners at least knew about the question of dual citizenship by August 6, 2019; i.e., about two months before the filing of this application in this Court. Given the particular facts of this case, and especially the fact that nominations for the presidential election were scheduled on October 7, 2019, it is the view of this Court that there is an unreasonable and unexplained delay in filing this application,” the Court noted.

    When asking for relief from the Court, “the conduct of the party applying for it is intensely relevant,” the Court noted, adding that “any person or persons seeking to invoke the discretionary powers of this Court, must come to Court with clean hands.”

    In the coming days, there is bound to be much analysis of the Court of Appeal verdict, particularly by the NDF and civil society activists. There has already been a suggestion that the court verdict could be appealed against.

    That strategy is a double-edged sword: If the Supreme Court too concurs with the Court of Appeal, it could boomerang on the NDF campaign because the SLPP will claim that the former is trying legal methods to prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa from contesting because it has failed to gather public support.

    Rival candidates

    In the meantime, rival candidates are engaged in a pitched battle to garner voter support. The two major pledges made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been to release all imprisoned ‘war heroes’ and provide free fertiliser to farmers.

    Both pledges have come under fire. Critics have been quick to note that so-called ‘war heroes’ have not been imprisoned without a reason; they have been through a due process of law and it is the judicial system and not the government that has led to their incarceration. Releasing all of them within twenty-four hours, as pledged by Rajapaksa, is tantamount to interfering with the judiciary.

    Minister Premadasa has taken a leaf out of his father’s book and promised to restore the free mid-day meal for school children. Alive to the fact that national security is a key issue, he has declared Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka will be in overall charge of national security, a pledge welcomed in most quarters.

    The coming weeks will see more promises and even more criticisms being hurled around. With exactly a month to go for the presidential elections, Sri Lankans should brace themselves for a barrage of promises- and an excess of election related news and propaganda.


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