Sri Lanka’s Election Conundrum: System Change And Local Government Election – OpEd


Sri Lanka has an election problem. In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a political novice with no elected office experience, contested to become president of the country. His qualification entailed two significant factors.

One, he was a brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was loved by most of the Sinhala masses. Gotabaya was fielded in 2019 only because Mahinda Rajapaksa could not contest due to constitutional constraints. Two, Gotabaya was defense secretary during the last phase of the civil war that ended in 2009. He shared the credit for terminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The voters did not bother about Gotabaya’s lack of political experience. They did not see that as a problem. He was nationalist enough to lead the country. Hence, Gotabaya won the 2019 presidential election with a thumping majority. 

Arrogance of a Political Novice

Indeed, it was proved that the lack of political experience was a significant problem. He was also arrogant enough to believe he could single-handedly make Sri Lanka a utopia. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy decisions, for example, introducing fully organic farming and deep tax cuts, brought Sri Lanka to its knees through the 2022 economic crisis. The scarcity of essential commodities, the principal embodiment of the economic crisis, resulted in the aragalaya (resistance).

The aragalaya brought people from all walks of life together to protest the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. They wanted President Gotabaya and his government to go home. “Go Home Gota” became the rallying cry. The aragalaya people also declared they were for a “system change.” Leaders of the aragalaya, not without reason, argued that the political system in Sri Lanka is deeply corrupt. Hence, it should be thoroughly reformed. 

System Change without Elections

An interesting dynamic of Sri Lanka’s 2022 aragalaya was that it never insisted on a national election as a part of its campaign. Instead, leaders of the aragalaya insisted that an election should not be held immediately. For example, the Inter University Students Federation convener Wasantha Mudalige, who played a leading role in the anti-government resistance, maintained that Sri Lanka “should go for an election only after a new constitution has been adopted” (Daily Mirror Online, July 28, 2022). This statement indicated they preferred an unelected leader and government after the incumbent regime was unseated. 

It was later revealed that the socialist faction of Sri Lanka’s polity, especially the Frontline Socialist Party headed by Kumar Gunaratnam, was one of the leading forces behind the aragalaya. The socialist faction was smart enough to understand that it could not win power through elections. The last phase of the aragalaya indicated that the socialist faction was trying to capture power by force. The aragalaya turned violent as the protesters forcefully entered the presidential palace and national television. The violent turn of the aragalaya, which hitherto remained peaceful, forced president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country without a fight. 

Assuming the revolution had succeeded, some left-leaning aragalaya leaders declared that no state decision should be made without the approval of what they called the “people’s council,” a proposed unelected body. Proponents of the aragalaya imagined the People’s Council as an “alternative parliament” (The Island, August 24, 2022). The aragalaya leaders did not understand that the Sri Lankan state was too powerful for this kind of extra-judicial thinking. The revolution never materialized. 

Nevertheless, the aragalaya installed an unelected (by the people) leader as president. The formidable Sri Lanka Constitution provides that if the office of the president is vacated, “Parliament shall elect” the next president from within the national legislature. Interestingly, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the sole member of parliament from the United National Party (UNP), was elected president in July 2022 by parliament. One could safely argue that Wickremesinghe’s election showed that the plans of the socialist faction backfired. 

As president, Wickremesinghe was not interested in implementing any aragalaya schemes. On the contrary, he went against the wishes of the aragalaya. For example, he used the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain some of the prominent leaders of the aragalaya, including Wasantha Mudalige. He appointed one of the leading members of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government, Dinesh Gunawardana, as prime minister. Moreover, Wickremesinghe protected the interests of the Rajapaksa clan. In essence, the aragalaya did not bring any system change to Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe ensured system stability because the SLPP retained control of parliament. The party is still in control.  

Local and General Elections

From a system change perspective, the best option was to call for the general election and offer people the opportunity of electing a government that, in their view, would resolve the economic crisis and the resulting socio-political issues. However, there was a problem. The president did not have powers to dissolve parliament until the expiry of two-and-a-half years from its election. Meanwhile, parliament was not ready to dissolve itself. One, members of parliament were not prepared to concede power. Two, many did not want to lose their pension, which required them to complete the term.

Meanwhile, it was decided to hold the local government election (LGE) on March 9. Sri Lanka has 341 local bodies entailing village, town, and municipal councils. Although they are the first contact of citizens with the state and render vital services, they are not significant for any “system change.” Therefore, the announcement of the LGE amounted to a slap in the face of the aragalaya by the Wickremesinghe government. Nevertheless, the protesters did not resist the proposed local government election. From a system change perspective, champions of the aragalaya should have rejected the LGE and demanded a parliamentary election. They did not demand a parliamentary election in 2022. They do not demand a parliamentary election now. This makes the “system change” slogan suspicious. 

In an unexpected turn, the Election Commission (EC) announced that it could not proceed with the LGE as planned. According to the EC, the government failed to provide sufficient funds for the elections. The postponement sets a dangerous precedent. In the future, national elections could be postponed based on the lack of funds argument. Nevertheless, the aragalaya proponents insist that the LGE must be conducted as planned. The system-change warriors seem not to see the irony of demanding the LGE. 

Missed Opportunity 

Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who ascended to the presidency solely due to the aragalaya, could have championed the people’s legitimate demands. For example, he could have promised to dissolve parliament as soon as possible and excluded the corrupt politicians of the ruling party. Instead, he preserved the status quo. He also used force to suppress public dissent. For example, several mini-aragalaya-type protests were attacked by the police. A Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna activist, Nimal Amarasiri, succumbed to injuries sustained at the anti-government rally on February 26. Public dissent has been suppressed in the name of fixing the economic crisis.   

Why does Wickremesinghe, who intends to contest the forthcoming presidential election (likely in 2024), disregard public opinion? Can he win the presidential election without public support? Wickremesinghe seems to be relying on the economic revival for his prospects in the presidential election. Can he fix the economic crisis before the presidential election? Reviving the economy to the satisfaction of the people seems like a far-fetched goal. Sri Lankan people are already losing patience due to the ever-increasing prices of essential commodities. The forceful suppression of public dissent could add to this frustration. Aragalaya 2.0 cannot be ruled out if the current trends continue.        

Nevertheless, the two-and-a-half-year moratorium on the dissolution of parliament expired on February 21. Now, the president can dissolve parliament at any time. Ideally, the president should shelve the LGE temporarily and offer people an opportunity to elect a new government by dissolving parliament. The fresh general election would help sideline the SLPP, which was mainly responsible for the economic crisis. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, which currently has only one member in the national legislature, would gain more parliamentary seats if the general election is conducted shortly.      

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.                                  

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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