Tuesday, 19 October 2021 18:18

Provincial Elections as Movement Forward - Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere are statements emanating from the government that it is planning to conduct provincial council elections in the early part of next year. It is reported that cash-strapped though it is, the government will be providing parliamentarians who are in charge of district development with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates. In addition, former members of provincial councils and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise. If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.

The present situation on the ground is hardly propitious to the conduct of elections. The economy is in deep trouble with foreign exchange reserves threatening to be negative if scheduled foreign loans are repaid on time unless there is a fresh infusion of foreign loans. Among the several reasons why foreign exchange is scarce is that the government is keeping the foreign exchange rate artificially low instead of letting market forces determine the price. This is no different from the price controls that the government attempted to place on rice which led to hoarding and artificial scarcities notwithstanding the declaration of a state of national emergency to deal with the hoarders. If the government relaxes the exchange rate it is likely that the foreign exchange rate will soar and prices of imports will soar likewise adding to the inflation in the country. This may be the concern that now justifies emergency rule.

Some of the present day economic problems are beyond the control of the government to resolve. These would include the loss of economic production due to the months of lockdown that followed the rise in Covid spread. The contribution of the tourism industry to the economy has been much diminished due to the closure of the country’s airports to prevent infection spread from abroad. However, some of the economic setbacks have been self-inflicted. The biggest one is the implementation of the chemical-free agriculture policy on a scale that has no precedent in any other country in the world. Even the most economically advanced countries, such as Germany, where there is a high demand for organic food, has only devoted around 10 percent of its agricultural land to chemical-free agriculture. And Switzerland, known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, recently rejected the banning of pesticides at a referendum as voters felt it was impractical.

Singlemided Commitment
The government has so far shown a singular commitment to going ahead with the decision to have chemical-free agriculture. There has been some concession to big business interests such as in the case of the tea industry. Some of the necessary chemical inputs for fertilizer are being permitted. However, this is an exception and the general rule that agriculture should take place without chemical inputs continues to prevail. So far there has not been flexibility shown with the farming community who are coming out publicly in protest as they are seeing their harvests being reduced. These protests are taking place in all parts of the country and in some areas the small farmers have not been planting crops fearing that the yield will be too small. The government has offered compensation but, given the financial crisis it is in, this is unlikely to materialize in the short term. 

The government’s present policy on organic agriculture appears to be following a military logic that sees the objective clearly and goes for it at all costs. One of the key features of democratic governance is that consultations take place with those whose interests are bound up with issues prior to the implementation of change. These consultations need to take place at multiple levels over a period of time if the decision being made is likely to have major consequences. Further it is not sufficient to practice tokenism in consultations. Often consultations take place but the views generated are not heeded. Those who consult sometimes appear to be listening but do not really listen nor are they willing to change their preconceived attitudes and plans. It seems as if the decisions have already been made. The essence of democratic government is to be responsive to public opinion, and to educate public opinion on new measures that need to be taken in the larger interests of society.

On the positive side, and to the credit of the government, it is providing space for public protests against its policies. Speaking in New York at the UN General Assembly President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he had instructed the police not to use batons and violence to break up peaceful protests. Restraint has been shown in the case of the three month long strike by government school teachers who continue to be paid their salaries while doing no work. There were initial signs of harsh restraint when Covid control laws were used to detain some of the teachers who were leading the protests. At this time these strong arm methods of control have stopped. Unfortunately, however, the problems that the organic farming problems and teachers’ strike pose show no signs of being resolved through compromise as alternatives do not appear to have been either studied or proposed.

Multiple Motivations
There may be multiple motivations in holding provincial elections at the present time. These elections are already three years overdue. The previous government failed to conduct the elections fearing that a bad performance would send a negative message to people who were already moving away from it. They changed the election law to make it more difficult to hold elections again. However, unlike the previous government, the present government leadership is made of sterner stuff when it comes to holding elections and winning them. It appears to be planning new strategies to regain the upper hand. The 2022 budget which is to be presented to Parliament later this month will offer the government an opportunity to address the immediate concerns of voters at least in the short term. They may also see elections at this juncture as being helpful to ensure political authority and benefits for the second tier of leaders who will be satisfied with them at the moment. 

The holding of provincial council elections will be more beneficial to the Tamil and Muslim parties in the Northern and Eastern provinces as it gives them a chance to obtain a share of political power at the provincial level that they do not have at the central level. There is speculation that the government’s sudden decision to conduct provincial council elections is the result of pressure from the Indian government. It is notable that the government’s announcement was made shortly after the visit to Sri Lanka of India’s foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla. At his meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa he had reiterated India’s position regarding the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment and to hold the provincial council elections at the earliest. During his visit the Indian foreign secretary had also urged the Tamil political parties not to look to India for a solution to their problems but to discuss the issues that trouble them and resolve them in dialogue with the Sri Lankan government.

In this context, the decision of the government to go ahead with provincial elections is the silver lining to the grey clouds that overhang the country. It is an indication that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being consistent with the pledges he made in New York at the UN General Assembly. The holding of provincial elections even in the present disadvantageous political situation that the government is in gives a positive message that the president is not neglecting his promises to the international community with regard to the reconciliation process. Addressing the root causes of the war and bringing reconciliation between the communities needs to be the number one priority of any government. The provincial council system as presently constituted is in need of improvement, both in terms of the distribution of powers and resources. But it is the way forward if the ethnic and religious minorities are to feel they are a part of governance structures of the country, and hence co-architects of a shared future in which there is national reconciliation.