Some 15.8 million Sri Lankans will vote in the country’s third tier elections on February 10, 2018 to chose 8,293 members to 341 local bodies, namely 24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 276 pradeshiya sabhas or divisional councils. A mixed electoral system will be followed wherein 60 per cent of the members will be elected on a ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system, while the rest will be on proportional representation according to votes polled.

The significance of the elections lies in the fact that it will be a major test of grassroots support of the political parties and their candidates before President Maithripala Sirisena demits office in 2020; the political durability of the Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe-UNP combination, apart from the efficacy of the mixed electoral system instituted in 2012; and subsequent delimitation of the local bodies’ constituencies to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

Sri Lanka’s political milieu has become very contentious after the ‘bond scandal’ broke out. The scandal involves manipulation in the auction of government treasury bonds by insider leakage of confidential information, leading to a loss of $ 72.44 million to the exchequer in 2015. This occurred after Sirisena, leader of a faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), assumed the presidency, and Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) became prime minister.

The scandal involves Arjuna Mahendran, former governor of the country`s central bank, hand-picked by Wickremasinghe, one of Mahendran`s relatives, and a firm alleged to be associated with him, which bought 50 per cent of the bonds.

While former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his faction of the SLFP is trying to derive political capital by attributing it to political manipulation and the administrative failure of Sirisena- Wickremesinghe, Sirisena has adopted a public stance conveying his determination to completely recover the loss to the state.

The scandal has become a major political issue. The inquiry report of a presidential commission on the scandal has been finalised. However, its contents are alleged to have not been fully revealed, thereby constricting debate in parliament. The outcome of the local body elections is expected to be influenced by the fallout of the scandal.

Curiosity factor

An interesting aspect of the local bodies’ elections is that the UNP and SLFP are contesting separately. Allegiance of the SLFP candidates is split between Sirisena and Rajapaksa. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is also a factor in the contest, though on a limited scale. A grandson of former UNP leader and president, Junius Jayewardene, is a candidate for councillorship from the SLFP in Colombo.

The outcome of the elections cannot be realistically predicted on party lines. In such an environment, the credibility of Sirisena and those in support of the president are expected to be indirectly tested.

It is therefore significant that Sirisena has adopted a combative posture, indicating that he will recover the loss caused by the under-priced bond auction, and has started highlighting unaccounted foreign loans worth $1 trillion, large siphoning off of loan content, sale of government enterprises without cabinet approval, and domestic sale of imported commodities at 300 per cent profit.

Testing time

The elections will also be a test for the dualism instituted in the electoral process, with the possibility of defections of elected candidates. A demand to replace listed candidates by independent candidates under certain circumstances is indicative of the prevailing uncertainty. It was turned down by the election commission.

Other issues like law and order, human rights, public welfare and employment are also expected to influence the elections.

Sirisena has claimed credit for the restoration of civil rights, enacting the Right to Information Act 2016, setting in motion a constitutional reform process by appointing a Constitutional Council, further devolution of powers from the national government level, and setting up a national human rights commission.

However, unaccounted police excesses have been occurring, leading to public agitation. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in the statute books. There is also no consensus on constitutional reforms. Human rights issues are still to be satisfactorily resolved.

Sirisena`s prime minister has defended the re-negotiated deal with two Chinese special-purpose vehicles set up by the China Merchants Port Holding Company in Hambantota and its port. However, local grievances at Hambantota on land acquisition, impact on environment and doling out economic favours to the local populace selectively, are simmering.

More than the SLFP, its factions and the UNP, it appears that the result of the local bodies` elections will impinge on the future political standing of Sirisena.

For both India and China, the continuance of President Sirisena and his unity government of the UNP and pro-Sirisena faction may be the most expedient and least turbulent option till the next presidential election in 2020. Wickremesinghe is on record to have stated that the present alliance will endure till 2020 and may even continue till 2025. Time will tell.

The writer was First Secretary in the Indian High Commission at Colombo. The views are personal