Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A brief history of Western Provincial Council Elections

The elections for the Western and Southern Provincial Councils will be held on March 29, 2014. This will be the sixth Provincial Council (PC) election in the Western Provincial Council (WPC). The largest PC in Sri Lanka by the number of members, WPC has 104 seats including the two bonus seats.

Western Province has a population of nearly six million, and Colombo and Gampaha are the most populous districts in the island. Colombo is the commercial hub of the island and was an important harbor even in the British colonial era. The province has benefited from the recent infrastructure development and the expanded port of Colombo will hopefully become a shipping hub in the Indian Ocean.

The provincial system was first introduced in 1833 by the British colonial government. Initially, there were five provinces which were ultimately expanded to nine. However, they were not very important and served just a ceremonial role until 1987.

That year, the overt Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’s civil war intensified. As per the Indo-Lanka Accord between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene, devolution of power was deemed to be the solution to the ‘national question’ and provinces were decided to be the basis for this. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act No. 42 of 1987 introduced the PCs. The first elections for PCs were held in April, 1988, in North Central, North Western, Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces. The Western and Southern Provinces went to polls on June 2, 1988 along with the Central Province.

By the time the first PC elections were held, the whole country was engulfed in violence. In the North and East, the LTTE was at full-fledged war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force. In the other provinces the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People’s Liberation Front, and its front organizations were conducting an armed insurrection against government forces.

In the PC elections, the United National Party (UNP) government did not face strong opposition from other contesting parties. The main opposition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), was against the PC system and boycotted the elections in 1988. Therefore, the main opposition to the UNP came from the United Socialist Alliance (USA), an alliance of several left-wing parties. A more credible threat was that of the JVP, which vowed to disrupt the elections, threatening the voters who are bold enough to vote, with death.

Despite the threats, the election was held and unsurprisingly, the UNP won it in Western Province and all other provinces except the North East. Susil Moonasinghe became the first Chief Minister of the WPC while Ossie Abeygoonasekera became the first leader of the Opposition.

The second WPC election was held in June 1993, while winds of change were blowing across the Sri Lankan political arena. It marked the political rebirth of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and was the first electoral success of her rapid rise. It was a strange time, combined with both political violence and hope. The UNP was fractured and the Democratic United National Front led by Lalith Athulathmudali had become the third force in Sri Lankan politics. It was during an election rally at Kirillapone that Athulathmudali was assassinated on April 23, 1993. President Ranasinghe Premadasa was implicated in this assassination by his opponents and for the first time, the President was visibly feeling the pressure of these accusations. A week later, on May 1, he was also assassinated.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the Chief Minister of WPC after the 1993 election, thereby becoming the first (and to-date, only) female Chief Minister of a Sri Lankan Provincial Council. She later contested the General Elections in August 1994 and became the Prime Minister. The vacancy created by her resignation from the Chief Minister post was filled by Morris Rajapaksa. However, he died in July 1995 and was replaced by Susil Premjayanth.

The five years legal duration of the WPC expired in June 1988. However, the next election was held only in April 1999. This was a time of political fragmentation, with popularity of the governing SLFP-led People’s Alliance falling rapidly while the popularity of the JVP increasing. In this election, the PA only edged past the UNP and only the 2 bonus seats separated them. (PA-46 seats, UNP-44 seats.) JVP won 8 seats while even Dr. Wickremabahu Karunaratne’s New Left Front won a seat from Colombo District. Reginald Cooray became the new Chief Minister of a minority PA government in the WPC.

The next election in 2004 saw the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) consisting of the former PA and the JVP routing the UNP. The WPC election came just after a General Election and the turnout was low. UPFA won 59 seats with the two bonus seats and Reginald Cooray was selected as Chief Minister again.

The last Western PC election saw the UPFA win a staggering victory over the opposition parties. The JVP had left the UPFA but its political mettle had largely fallen. The UPFA had the added advantage of a successful war against the LTTE, which was at its final weeks. UPFA won 68 seats out of 104 and UNP won 30. JVP managed only 3 and Sri Lanka Muslin Congress won 2. Prasanna Ranatunga was selected as the Chief Minister.

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