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Saturday, 23 September 2017
Saturday, 23 September 2017 | Sri Lanka Watch
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Implementing 13th amendment through elections PDF Print E-mail
Shortly after its military victory over the LTTE in the north, the government decided to call for local government elections in the two largest northern cities of Jaffna and Vavuniya.  Most of the opposition political parties have protested this urgency on the grounds that the situation in the north is far from normal and that the people are in no mood for an election. But these elections are limited in scope as they are confined to the municipal limits of these two cities.  The elections will therefore not cover the IDP camps and their inhabitants.  The elections have been fixed for August 8 and the contesting political parties will willingly or unwillingly, be filing their nominations this week and the next.

Despite their limited scope, the local government elections for Jaffna and Vavuniya have wider implications as they promise to be the beginning of a series of elections in the north of the country. The government has pledged to implement the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution that devolved power to elected provincial councils.  Although the prevailing provincial council system is widely seen to be flawed, the establishment of a provincial council for the Northern Province could be offered as evidence of forward movement in the direction of a political solution.

The holding of the Jaffna and Vavuniya elections is likely to be described as heralding the re-establishing of democracy and provision of devolved power in the Northern Province, and hence and finally in all parts of the country.  There is reason to believe that the future developments in the Northern Province will follow the sequence of events that took place in the Eastern Province in 2007.  After the government recaptured LTTE held areas in that province, it quickly held local government elections in Batticaloa, and followed it up with elections for the Provincial Council of the Eastern Province.

The elections in the north can be shown as a major political achievement of the government, and an antidote to the strident criticisms of a section of the international community regarding the government’s human rights track record.  It is ironic that the government should continue to find itself on the defensive with regard to human rights, even after winning the battle against the LTTE.  So far the government has fought back mustering support from allied countries.  Holding elections at this time is strategic for the government, as it would tend to take local and international attention away from the costs of war and humanitarian crisis, and refocus them on the normalization process.   

POLITICAL OBJECTIVES

If the government is able to demonstrate political progress in re-establishing democracy and the devolution of powers in the north, this would be an achievement that other democratic countries will find difficult to ignore or belittle.  The ability and willingness of the Sri Lankan government to conduct elections in the north, within three months of winning the war is similar to the British experience after winning the Second World War.  The beginning of a new political process in the north would do much to attract the support of other democratic countries, which may then be more prepared to provide economic assistance to the country.

It is now becoming more apparent that the diplomatic battle with a section of the international community could have deleterious consequences to the country and even on the popularity of the government, mainly on account of the economic fallout.  With the ending of the war, the attention of the general population will invariably be turning towards economic matters, and the government is finding itself hard pressed due to less than anticipated economic support from key international actors.  The majority of people who acquiesced in the violence of the war as it did not directly affect them, may be inclined to turn away from the government in the face of continued economic hardship.

Several months ago, the government sought an emergency IMF loan on USD 1.9 billion to make various repayments of previous loans that are falling due. But now this IMF loan appears to be getting delayed.  There are also concerns that the EU’s GSP Plus import tariff concession to Sri Lanka could itself be in jeopardy.  Earlier the EU had extended the facility temporarily pending an investigation. The confrontational posture of the Sri Lankan government on issues of human rights and democratic governance with the countries that dominate these key international institutions could add to the country’s economic woes.

A political objective of the government would be to build on the experience of holding local government elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya to hold the much more important election for the entirety of the Northern Province.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ministerial colleagues in the government have been at pains to affirm the need for a political solution to the ethnic conflict.   The 13th Amendment to the constitution which was adopted in 1987 as a consequence of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord continues to be the best blueprint that the country has for a political solution.  The problem is that it has never been implemented in the manner that was envisaged by its framers.

TWO PHASED

During the period when the LTTE was the dominant force in Tamil society, there was little hope that the 13th Amendment could be any part of a final political solution.  This was largely due to the LTTE’s intransigent nature and its objections to this innovative legislation that dispersed centrally concentrated power to the provinces.  As a result there was no agitation by Tamil parties for the full implementation of the provincial council law or cases taken before the courts of law. But now with the elimination of the LTTE, the 13th Amendment may take on new relevance, especially if the government can be persuaded to implement it in full.

At present several powers of the provincial councils, such as health and education, have been re-centralised by the central government.  Some other powers, such as police and land, have not been devolved at all.  The flow of economic resources from the central government to the provincial councils has been abysmally poor.  The funds allocated are grossly inadequate for effective development work to take place out of any of the existing provincial councils.   In addition, until last year, the provincial council system did not function in the Northern and Eastern provinces.  Last year’s provincial council elections for the Eastern Province appear to have paved the way for such elections to the Northern Province.

The government’s approach to the implementation of the 13th Amendment is likely to be two-phased.  In the first phase, the government will extend the operation of the provincial council system to include the two provinces that were left out until recent times, the Northern and Eastern provinces.  Although the eastern elections were marred by electoral violence and intimidation, they enabled the government to establish an Eastern Provincial Council with an elected Chief Minister.  Now the government looks set to replicate the eastern model in the north.  What this means in practice is that the government’s pledge to implement the 13th Amendment will take the form of a geographical expansion of the provincial council system rather than a deepening of it.

The first phase of implementation of the provincial council system would be to extend it to all the provinces in the country.  The experience after a year of the operation of the Eastern Provincial Council does not suggest that there will be a deepening and empowering of the provincial councils.  However, the completion of the first phase of implementation of the 13th Amendment by establishing provincial councils in all nine provinces of the country will be an important achievement.  It can also set the stage for the process of political empowerment of the provincial council system and bring forward the second phase of its implementation.  


--Jehan Perera
 
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