What is at Stake in Sri Lanka’s Local Elections

Sri Lankans will head to the polls on March 9 for the first time after the 2022 Aragalaya (struggle) – the mass protests that, amid a spiraling economic crisis, ousted former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office last July. The local elections will not in themselves upset the balance of power in Colombo. However, many see the elections as a de facto referendum on the legitimacy of the interim unity government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, elected to office with backing from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party.

A poor election result could jeopardize Wickremesinghe’s 2024 reelection bid, raise public pressure in favor of early snap elections, and delay Colombo’s negotiations with international creditors. Yet, with the election proceedings challenged in the Supreme Court, a disunited opposition, and swiftly shifting political alliances, the outcome remains far from certain for Asia’s oldest democracy.

Mounting Legal Ambiguity

The ruling United National Party (UNP) and its main governing partner, the SLPP, have vehemently opposed holding the elections amid the prevailing economic crisis, citing an estimated 10 billion LKR cost ($27.4 million) and a desire first to secure an IMF bailout. Retired Army Colonel W.M.R. Wijesundara has echoed these complaints and filed a petition with the Supreme Court to invalidate election preparations following two prior Supreme Court filings by a multi-party coalition weeks earlier, seeking to force elections as scheduled. However, the Election Commission (EC) has countered that local elections – last held in 2018 and already postponed by one year – can no longer be deferred. The Urban Councils Ordinance allows for council terms of office to be extended under Section 10(2)(b), “provided however, that the period […] shall not exceed twelve months.”

Opposition leaders have charged the government with delaying tactics, for instance, pointing to the introduction of new campaign finance regulations mere weeks before the polls and the rejection of amendments to have them take effect after the elections. EC sources had warned of potential delays due to the new regulations, with Chairman Nimal Punchihewa questioning the government’s reluctance to provide allocated budget resources for the elections. These anxieties are grounded in past precedent as the 2018 local elections were delayed by nearly two-and-a-half years, partly due to an outdrawn and occasionally non-transparent electoral system overhaul.

The EC has been summoned twice for emergency meetings by Wickremesinghe, who has publicly insinuated that the Commission is divided internally. Moreover, current EC representatives have received death threats over the decision to hold elections, sparking concerns over an ongoing process by the re-inaugurated Constitutional Council to appoint new EC members. Opposition parties and election monitoring NGOs have pointed out that the timing of these interventions could be construed as potential interference in the election process. Nevertheless, Chairman Punchihewa has stressed that the elections can be overturned only by new laws or court orders. The local elections will thus depend on the outcomes of the pending Supreme Court cases.

Uncertain Political Environment

The local elections are a double-edged sword for President Wickremesinghe. On the one hand, state and local institutions are in dire need of renewed democratic legitimacy after the 2022 popular uprising, which, in just a few months, deposed three different Rajapaksa cabinets only to have their handpicked successor ascend to power while reliant on the still co-ruling SLPP in parliament. Local elections would thus help relieve pressures that might otherwise engender renewed protests and instability. On the other hand, should the results reveal a weak popular mandate, the government would lose further legitimacy – reminiscent of the last local elections that preceded the 2018 constitutional crisis. Such an outcome would weaken Wickremesinghe’s 2024 re-election bid and the government’s economic reform agenda while intensifying pressures to dissolve parliament and call snap elections.

The two main governing partners and former rivals have entered a temporary electoral alliance. Wickremesinghe’s UNP party, which all but collapsed to a single parliamentary seat in 2020, is not well positioned to pick up voters alone. In control of a mere 34 out of 340 local authorities, the party is weakened in terms of grassroots infrastructure. Meanwhile, the SLPP has also lost significant grassroots support – likely set for a considerable decline from its 2018 landslide victory. Though the SLPP still commands a substantial presence in parliament and a plurality of local authorities, there have been dozens of defecting parliamentarians from its former electoral alliance. Quite a few of the defectors have recently made common cause with other smaller parties to form a new 12-party political alliance – the Samagi Jana Sandhanaya (SJS) – already the third-largest party in parliament.

The central challenge has long been seen as coming from the main opposition, the centrist Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), and the fifth-largest party, the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-led (JVP) National People’s Power alliance. In the aftermath of the 2022 uprising, general and presidential election polling put the two as the people’s top choices. Both criticized Wickremesinghe’s use of emergency powers to crack down on protestors and refused subsequent calls to join an all-party government, positioning themselves as potential governing alternatives – both domestically and vis-á-vis international interlocutors.

Nevertheless, the top opposition parties are divided. The SJB and JVP leaderships have been taking shots at each other, eyeing the same goal – the main opposition mantle amid a potentially collapsing SLPP majority. Without a unified front, they will have a harder time rallying voters to present a credible governing alternative, particularly amid signs of waning popularity. While favorability ratings do not necessarily translate into voting preferences, more recent November polling indicates the opposition has not been spared the electorate’s anger. Notably, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP leader AK Dissanayake were viewed unfavorably by 57 and 55 percent, respectively, marginally worse than Wickremesinghe’s 46 and even Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 51 percent.

Reasons to Not Count Wickremesinghe Out

There are significant reasons not to discount Wickremesinghe’s one-person party. First, there is a chance for returning SJB voters. Notably, the main opposition party emerged only three years ago as an offshoot from the then-disintegrating UNP amid a struggle over the party’s future direction between Wickremesinghe – party leader since 1994 – and the departing Premadasa. With the UNP again in government and two SJB MPs already having broken ranks to take ministerial positions, it is not unthinkable for voters to follow, given ideological proximity.

Second, while opposition parties have blasted Wickremesinghe for lacking a democratic mandate to negotiate with the IMF and for insufficient transparency in negotiations, they mainly disagree on procedural rather than substantive grounds. The SJB and nominally Marxist-Leninist JVP have both signaled that they ultimately agree on the need to pursue a bailout, mainly conflicting on how far to go in accepting austerity conditionalities. That stands in contrast to trade unions, prominent economists, and scholars who contend that only significant debt cancellation can address the Rajapaksas’ “odious debt,” largely enabled by private commercial creditors who willingly took on great risk with commensurately high interest rates. Yet, without fundamentally different opposition approaches, Wickremesinghe could be perceived as the more credible negotiator in reaching an agreement, particularly given recent progress with India, China Exim Bank, and the Paris Club of creditors.

On February 8, Wickremesinghe notably announced a slew of new long-term policies and reforms for the coming 25 years, using his incumbent advantage to set the political agenda after temporarily suspending parliament. Pledging a return to growth this year and an end to the nation’s bankruptcy by 2026, he framed his one-seat party as being above partisan politics and ready to take unpopular but necessary decisions, albeit against the backdrop of massive workers’ strikes nationwide.

Particularly noteworthy was his reaffirmed pledge to soon resolve the decades-old question of implementing the 13th Amendment to ensure more political autonomy for Sri Lanka’s sizable Tamil minority. There is some reason for skepticism, as most Tamil parties boycotted his recent all-party conference, citing lack of progress and rejecting his position as insufficient. While Wickremesinghe supports devolution within a unitary state, he opposes full federalization and supports Buddhism’s continued centrality in state institutions. There is also a wariness over his past reluctance as Prime Minister to ensure accountability for war crimes committed in the Sri Lankan Civil War, including his taking credit for shielding Mahinda Rajapaksa from the International Criminal Court.

Nevertheless, when juxtaposed with the increasingly pervasive Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism in recent years, Wickremesinghe could still emerge as the more attractive option should there be meaningful progress on devolution and reconciliation. That could boost potential voter support among the Tamils and Moors – nearly a quarter of the population woefully underserved by mainstream politics.