Making A Difference

Electoral Dilemma

The president dissolves two provincial councils held by the UNP

Electoral Dilemma
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The UNP has filed petitions in the appeals court challenging the dissolution, and legal experts predict that it is likely to win. "This is clearly unconstitutional. Provincial councils can only be dissolved by a governor on the advice of the chief minister, which has not happened in this case. I cannot see how the courts can uphold this dissolution," says Rohan Edrisinha, lecturer on constitutional law at the Colombo University.

The provincial councils were set up in 1987 under the Indo- Sri Lanka accord to end the separatist war. The ruling People's Alliance (PA) currently controls only two of the seven provinces in the island.

But Kumaratunga will be the loser which ever way the court decision goes. "If the courts quash the dissolution the government will look very silly. At the same time, this will obviously have repercussions on the debate about the devolution package. If the court shows that it is willing to take on the government then that will have a positive effect on devolution. However, the extreme Sinhala opinion that is against the package will point to the danger of councils with more powers being independent from the centre," says Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, research consultant at the Centre for Policy Studies and Research at Colombo University.

Political analysts believe the government may be planning elections in the two councils within three months, ahead of the village council elections scheduled for July. If it does well in both, it may call snap general elections. The PA now has a majority of one in parliament and depends on fringe Tamil groups for survival.

The opposition UNP—in disarray following its defeat in the November 1994 elections after a record 17 years in power—went on the offensive immediately after the dissolution. However, the party would prefer not to face elections at the moment. "The party is divided, the organisational structure is not in place and on top of that, we do not have the finances to carry out a major campaign," says a party leader.

Political analysts say one reason for the dissolution was to test whether the dev-olution package was a major political issue and if so, what was the reaction of the people to it, before tabling it before the parliamentary select committee. The package envisages radical devolution of powers to the provinces to end the 12-year-old Tamil separatist war. With Sinhalese extreme forces launching a major offensive against the package, the government will have a tough time winning support in parliamentand among the majority Sinhalese, who fear that devolution would be the first step towards a separate state. A negative court decision would also hurt the government's strategy to win support in parliament.

 "If the two provincial elections are held and the government wins both and also does well in the local government elections due in a few months, it will be a signal to the UNP that if it does not support the new constitution, the government may go for the dissolution of parliament. In that situation, the UNP will not want to risk a general election and give the government a substantial majority in parliament," says Dr Chanaka Amaratunga, leader of the Liberal Party. Besides, another reason for Kumaratunga to opt for snap general elections could be that her government would come under pressure from its Tamil support groups if it failed to get approval for the peace package.

The new constitution, which also envisages the abolition of the unpopular executive presidency, needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament and a national referendum. The devolving of powers and the abolition of the executive presidency were two of the main promises of the government's election platform. "In such a situation there will be immense pressure on the UNP leadership to stall the general elections, fearing that they would lose their seats," says Amaratunga. For the president, it's heads I win, tails you lose.

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