11 May 2011, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, filed a fundamental rights application (SCFR 161/2011) in the Supreme Court on 4th May 2011 alleging that the Election Commissioner’s failure to hold elections to the Colombo Municipal Council constitutes a continuing violation of his right to the franchise and his right to equality before the law. The case was filed in his personal capacity, as a citizen entitled to vote at elections to the Colombo Municipal Council.
CPA in turn expresses its deep concern over the continuing erosion of the right of Sri Lankans to exercise their franchise at local government elections. The government is responsible for this erosion through the abuse of the President’s power to promulgate Emergency Regulations (ERs) under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO). CPA also fears that any legislation resembling the publicly released outlines of the proposed Jana Sabha and Colombo Metropolitan Corporation Bills will deprive citizens of the fundamental civil right to elect decision-makers at the local authority level.
The most basic of expectations in a democracy is that elections are held periodically according to law. We are concerned that the government is steadily undermining this expectation in relation to the local government level. The appointment in July 2009, through E.R. No. 1 of 2009, of a Competent Authority who continues to exercise all the powers otherwise exercisable by elected members of the Colombo Municipal Council portended this trend. In January of 2011, the President once again used his power to promulgate ERs to artificially extend the term of office of the members of 22 local authorities until the 30th of June 2011, thus preventing elections from being held at four year intervals as demanded by law. While the government publicly cited the Cricket World Cup as the reason for the postponement of elections, more than eight weeks after the conclusion of the World Cup, there is still no sign of elections being held. Instead, in March 2011, E.R. No. 3 of 2011 further extended the term of office of the members of the same 22 local authorities to 31st December 2011.
We are unequivocally of the view that the use of emergency powers in day-to-day governance in peacetime is an abuse of those powers and unacceptable in a democracy. The use of emergency regulations to execute the presidential fiat in relation to local government is not only plainly illegal and beyond the scope of the powers conferred by the PSO, but it is also a partisan usurpation of and interference with the democratic structures that are closest to the people. This evinces not only the dangers of the continuation in force of the state of emergency and the normalisation of these extraordinary powers in civil administration, but also the government’s tendency to centralisation and executive unilateralism.
Meanwhile, Cabinet has reportedly authorised plans to set up a Colombo Metropolitan Corporation, which by all accounts will be chaired by an unelected official directly appointed by either the President or a Cabinet Minister. This body will reportedly exercise supervisory and executive authority over the existing local authorities in the Colombo metropolitan area. With the Bill expected to be presented to Parliament later this year, CPA fears that voters in the Colombo area will not be able to meaningfully exercise their franchise at the local level. Cabinet has also decided to proceed with the country-wide establishment of Jana Sabhas with similar supervisory and executive authority over local authorities. The membership of these Jana Sabhas will not be limited to elected officials, who will likely find themselves a minority within these bodies, which will comprise civil servants, direct ministerial appointees and heads of local authorities.
Taken together, CPA believes that these interferences and initiatives with regard to local government represent a grave assault on the franchise and associated fundamental human rights, which constitute the democratic entitlement of Sri Lankan citizen.
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