Last week, President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that Sri Lankan local elections, due to be held on 9th March 2023, will be indefinitely delayed, as the Sri Lankan government continues its assault on democratic rights. These elections, which had already been postponed once before, were to be the first electoral test for Wickremesinghe since he took office in July 2022. While the government’s parliamentary majority would not be affected, it would nonetheless be a litmus test to judge the popularity of the governing coalition.
While blaming the economic crisis engulfing the country and lack of funds for the state’s inability to hold elections, the government indulged in the pomp and ceremony of the tone-deaf 75th Independence Day celebrations. The financial mismanagement is only further highlighted by recent reports that more than $36 billion in export earnings from the years 2009-2017 was never brought into the country and continues to be held offshore. Opposition MPs have claimed that there have been relentless attempts to sabotage the local elections and the President has been influencing state officials and the independent Elections Commission against holding polls. Indeed, this postponement is merely the culmination of a concerted campaign to undermine the scheduled elections, which has involved the government postponing postal voting and even denying that elections were ever scheduled to take place. Indeed, the Election Commission has received 20 complaints citing incidents of interference relating to these elections. An interim order was issued by the Supreme Court on Friday 3rd March preventing State functionaries from withholding funds allocated for the local elections and the Election Commission has had assurances from the Treasury that funding will be made available to hold the elections – but no new dates have been confirmed as yet. Following a consultation between the Treasury Secretary and the Electoral Commission, elections are now scheduled for April 25 – it remains to be seen if this new date will be respected by the government.
The postponement of local elections is not an isolated issue, as it fits into a pattern of anti-democratic and repressive governance in Sri Lanka. Since Wickremesinghe took office, the police have continued to deploy excessive force with impunity. At a 10,000-strong National People’s Power (NPP) protest on 26th February, the indiscriminate and excessive use of tear gas and water cannons on the cornered protestors resulted in the death of an NPP candidate and left dozens more injured and requiring medical assistance. Videos which caught the incident show that the protesters had no avenues to disperse and yet the police continued to use tear gas and water cannons, in clear violation of human rights law and international standards on the appropriate use of force. The actions of the police here and in previous protests have drawn public condemnation and further accusations of abuse of power and unlawful interference with the rights to freedom of speech and of peaceful assembly.
The febrile atmosphere on the island nation follows months of continued protest over the economic crisis and the government’s poor handling of the situation. Wickremesinghe took office on 21st July last year, pledging to uphold rights and allow non-violent protests against his government. By 22nd July the anti-government protest camp outside the presidential office had been forcibly dismantled by armed security personnel. Hundreds of protestors have been arrested since the outbreak of anti-government protests last spring, some of whom have been detained for extended periods of time under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). On 28th February, using the executive powers of the office, the President banned anti-tax union strikes in key sectors providing “essential services,” with non-compliance potentially resulting in dismissal from employment. Wickremesinghe’s government is unashamedly using the economic crisis to stifle democracy and introduce repressive legislation. The conduct of elections and the ability of the people to exercise their franchise is the foundation of democratic governance but these fundamental principles are being undermined under this government.
Wickremesinghe is keen to distance himself from the former incumbent with superficial changes to the Office of the President such as abolishing the use of the honorific ‘His Excellency’ and presidential flag, but the substantive changes the public has been calling for are yet to appear. Whilst many protests have called for the abolition of the executive presidency, the government’s flagship 21st Amendment has not substantially reduced Presidential authority. Indeed, as legal experts have pointed out, the office of the Presidency continues to wield more authority than it did prior to 2020, as the new amendment fails to restore constitutional checks and balances consistent with those contained in the 19th Amendment of 2015.
Read more about the failings of the 21st Amendment here.
Wickremesinghe’s government does not appear to have qualms over the use of the police force in the suppression of citizens’ rights, part of broader attacks on democratic rights. In their 2023 World Report, Human Rights Watch noted that the change of leadership has not led to any improvements in the country’s human-rights record or respect for the rule of law. The new administration is indicating that they have no intention of reversing the damaging policies of its predecessor, with their repression of peaceful protests, targeting of activists, continued use of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act and the disregard for accountability.
As the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva prepares to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka tomorrow, the country’s aggressive response to peaceful protestors will be put under the spotlight. This latest attack on fundamental principles of human rights and state violence is yet more evidence of Sri Lanka’s democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism. Independent, transparent and impartial investigations into allegations of human-rights violations must be launched with international oversight, given the country’s failed history of domestic truth-seeking mechanisms. These local elections, already delayed, must not be further disrupted.
Read more about Sri Lanka’s Past Accountability and Human Rights Processes here.