The battle against election fear in Sri Lanka

On May 28, President Ranil Wickremesinghe let the cat out of the bag. As political tensions increase and the demand for elections spike, the general secretary of the United National Party (UNP)—a party that has recorded successive defeats and now stands decimated under Wickremsinghe’s leadership—has proposed the postponement of both presidential and parliamentary elections by two years through a referendum, effectively permitting Wickremesinghe to continue as president to “implement economic reforms”.

This call may resonate with a section of Sri Lanka’s middle class, content with the absence of queues for food and fuel with no power cuts—a fake normalcy concealing the painful reality of a nation overwhelmed by external debt. Interestingly, the postponement call is an indirect acceptance by Wickremesinghe of his inability to obtain a popular mandate, no matter what his economy-fixing mantra is.

People remain unconvinced of both his leadership and the economic reforms formula, primarily a prescription from the International Monetary Fund. Experts critique that without new industries and exports, privatisation and accumulation of debt to service existing debt cannot fix the island’s ailing economy. In short, being wedded to the current reforms offers no guarantee of economic recovery.

The current privatisation spree does not win public trust either. The process is so opaque and lacking basic transparency that people learn about development projects or “investments” often through the media. They also fear their island home has been turned into a veritable battleground, with competing powers—the United States, China and India—all staking claims.

Adding to this is intense India watching, with trepidation and mistrust, as the country learns about new projects, be it green wind or railways. The same middle class that wants to place its trust in Wickremesinghe finds it impossible to write that blank cheque for the fear of the unknown future.

Back to the question of the haste to postpone polls. Sri Lanka is expected to hold both parliamentary and presidential elections in the latter part of 2024. Then there is that distasteful political history around referendums and extensions of terms. One of Sri Lanka’s most dubious electoral experiments was in 1982 when Wickremesinghe’s uncle, Sri Lanka’s first executive president, Junius Richard Jayewardene, extended the life of parliament using the same mechanism.

Unlike Wickremesinghe, Jayewardene in his second term was still a popular leader. During the infamous referendum held in December 1982, nearly 71% cast their vote, with 54% voting in favour of extending the life of parliament. In September 1982, Jayawardene had secured 52% of the total vote to serve a second term even though the fairness of this election remains contentious.

So, to have the UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara suggest a dubious repeat comes as no surprise, with its ill-concealed political intentions behind the cloak of economic reforms. He audaciously said: “If not for five years, at least for two years,” and called for support from the National People’s Power and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the two most popular political outfits at present.

What is striking is the absence of respect for public acceptance and his justifications to roll up the electoral map. First, it is democratic if it involves the passing of a resolution in parliament followed by a referendum. Second, it is necessary to continue current economic reforms. Third, it is futile to waste public funds on elections at a financially critical time. Fourth, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike also postponed elections in the 1970s. The first he did not mention, and that was the 1982 referendum that remains a permanent black mark on the UNP’s political legacy.

There is no denying that Sri Lanka needs an urgent recovery plan. It is not just economic, but deeply political. The level of external debt is also a question of financial discipline and governance, and begs the question whether the country’s politicians can be trusted to ensure recovery when in 75 years, all they have done is increase external borrowings without effective repayment models.

It is the political component of the crisis that the politicians are keen to avoid. Because that demands accountability for a multitude of promises made over 75 years, unaddressed ethnic wounds, religious tension, youth unrest and grand corruption. These issues emerged in 2022 during the popular uprising, and a key demand was to call for elections. An attempt to openly rob the people of their right to vote on the pretext of economic stability can only trigger further political tension, and how it may escalate is impossible to predict.

As for the elections, despite the propaganda and heat of the moment, popularity of candidates and parties fluctuate. Sri Lankans are also known for voting with their emotions, and this election may not be any different. A case in point is when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga rode a wave of sympathy to be re-elected as president after she survived a suicide attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and lost sight in one eye.

This time around, experimentative politics will prove way too costly. It is the first time that Sri Lanka holds elections as a bankrupt nation. Admittedly, part of the island’s larger malady is the ilk of present-day politicians. Suffice to say that it is not a nation with too many choices.

There had been promises to abolish executive presidency since 1994. There had been commitments and efforts, some of it half-hearted, to address the national question. The war concluded in 2009, leaving the larger question of justice and reparation unaddressed. There is little concern over the need to share power and there’s no thought given to the non-implementation of the 13th Amendment, a violation of the Constitution. 

Then there are those who voluntarily lecture Colombo about transparency, accountability and human rights, ad nauseum. On the question of the imminent postponement of elections, there is radio silence. Do we conclude that the people’s franchise is not among the human rights they often speak of?

Sri Lanka needs a genuine attempt to resurrect the nation. Getting stuck in old political and economic models may not offer the answers the troubled island requires. It would need innovation, creativity, and even a new breed of politicians.