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Sri Lanka’s Local Elections Test Government’s Popularity in North but Development Continues

July 27, 2011

On July 23, Sri Lanka had the second of three rounds of local government elections planned for this year. Sixty-five councils were up for grabs but the focus of attention was on 20 councils in the Tamil majority Northern Province.

Sri Lanka poster

Although not much was at stake in terms of administrative power and financial resources in Sri Lanka's council elections, people still paid close attention because the elections were seen as a popularity test of the UPFA and TNA. Photo by Karl Grobl.

The first round on March 17, was for 234 councils out of a total of 335. The balance will be elected in a third round before the end of the year. In last week’s election, the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 15 of 20 councils in the North. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), which ran on the ticket of the ruling coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), won three councils and the Tamil United Liberation Front won two. Combined with the eight councils they won in March, and the Vavuniya Urban Council that it won in a mini election on August 8, 2009, the TNA now controls 24 of 34 councils in the Northern Province. The ruling UPFA won all 45 councils in the Sinhalese majority provinces in the South, adding to the 205 it won on March 17, demonstrating its popularity outside the North.

Not much was at stake in terms of administrative power and financial resources in these elections. Local councils in Sri Lanka’s system of government have a limited, although not inconsequential, remit. They are responsible for basic services. Their capacity is weak compared to the district and sub-district representatives of the central government. In public administration parlance, these secretaries are “deconcentrated functionaries” of the central government; in Sri Lanka they implement centrally-funded development activities and provide key public services.

People paid attention to the council elections because they were a test of the UPFA and TNA’s popularity. The top-line results – that the ruling party is still very popular in the predominantly Sinhalese South and less popular in the Tamil North – should not have been a surprise to anyone paying attention to Sri Lankan politics. They are also broadly consistent with a public opinion survey that The Asia Foundation commissioned the Nielsen Co. to conduct in November-December 2010 to gauge the post-war mood of the country.

The government had hoped to do better in the North. Since the end of the war it has poured billions of rupees into development projects there and it hoped that this would assuage some of the anger that Tamils felt due to the government’s victory over the Tigers and the lack of progress in devolving power to Tamil areas. Nevertheless, the government shouldn’t have been under any illusion about its popularity in the North after Tamils had taken a decidedly anti-government and anti-President Rajapaksa stance in the January 2010 presidential election and the August 2010 parliamentary elections, and the first round of local government elections in March this year.

However, it would be a mistake to claim that the election results mean that Northern Tamils chosen political rights over development, as some have suggested. This is a false dichotomy. Tamils would like to have both – greater say and control over the policies and decisions that affect their lives, as well as the economic benefits that are now accruing from the end of the war. The latter is not a substitute for the former. But at the same time, there is no denying that Tamil grievances were in part generated by the relative under-development of the North and East compared to the rest of the country. Armed conflict in Sri Lanka had a “material basis.” It was not the only reason, and it may not have been the main one, but the economic divide was a justification for Tamil Eelam. The central government will not cancel its plans to rebuild the North and East simply because Tamil voters once again sided with the opposition. Even if the government reaps no political reward for reconstruction and rehabilitation, it’s in the government’s self-interest to bridge the economic divide between the North and South if, in the end, it means that the northerners have a better life and more to lose from a return to conflict than they had in 1983.

However, the transfer of more power to local government institutions is unlikely to happen in the short run, for a couple of reasons. First, the main parties in the UPFA coalition, led by President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, are “nationalist” in their orientation and are not predisposed to  “power-sharing” with Tamil parties. Most party leaders embrace a version of the “slippery slope” argument that granting greater power to provinces would embolden them to ask for more, and reignite rather than quell the demand for separation.

Second, the antagonism and mutual hostility between the TNA and ruling party, bad to begin with, has worsened since the TNA’s advocacy of an international investigation of war crimes allegations against the government. The government believes the threat of war crimes investigation is being used to pressure it into making concessions on devolution. The chances of a grand bargain are probably more remote than ever now that devolution has become another test of wills between the government on one side, and the TNA, Western countries, and India on the other.

The next act in restoring sub-national government institutions in the North is to elect a provincial council, probably in 2012. Provincial not local councils are the primary unit of devolution in Sri Lanka’s system of local government so the stakes will be higher. The best thing that newly-elected TNA councilors could do for their constituents in the meantime is to exercise the powers that local authorities have. Local councils are responsible for water supply, sanitation and sewerage, solid waste management, roads, community health, and markets and commercial buildings, among other things. They can also establish collaborative relationships with the central government-appointed District and Divisional Secretaries for their areas, most of them Tamil, to try and influence larger local development planning and services as well.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at nfernando@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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