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Local Government Elections a Test for Sri Lanka’s National Unity Government

Sri Lanka is just days away from carrying out the largest electoral exercise in the country’s history.  Nearly 16 million voters will have the opportunity to elect local government representatives for the country’s 341 local government bodies. While unlikely to receive much international attention, inside the country, Sri Lankans are closely following electoral developments.

The elections have significant national and international implications. Locally, they symbolize a key test for Sri Lanka’s National Unity Government. Made up of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP), the National Unity Government was elected in 2015 on a platform that promised to restore good governance with a focus on democratization, reconciliation, accountability and transparency – including a review of the country’s foreign indebtedness, particularly to China. Since then, however, there have been mixed reviews of its performance to date. Now, in the middle of a democratic reform process, the weakening of either party could place additional pressure on the unity government that is struggling to advance its agenda.

From an international political perspective, the elections could impact the trajectory of an ongoing democratic transition in a geopolitically important country in Asia. Under the National Unity Government, relations with the West and India have been strengthened at a time when there are concerns about China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka.

Equally important in terms of Sri Lanka’s democratic consolidation, these elections could impact how future provincial and national elections are carried out. Under the new electoral system, the number of elected local government representatives will nearly double, improving the level and hopefully the quality of representation. The new mixed member proportion representation electoral system includes a 25 percent quota for women’s representation, which will increase women’s representation from its current level of less than two percent. If the new local government electoral system is well-received by voters, it could lead to changes in the country’s voting system and pave the way for greater women’s participation in politics at provincial and national levels of government.  Continued efforts that promote greater levels of inclusion at all levels of government will lead to better policies and be an important step in advancing responsive, citizen-centered governance.

In 2015, voters ended the entrenched authoritarian rule of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and brought the National Unity Government to power. The SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the local elections separately despite governing jointly. After two years, voters may use these local elections as an opportunity to voice their assessment of the government’s performance. Given high expectations often follow the defeat of authoritarian leaders, equally high levels of disappointment can result if expectations are not soon met. 

Adding uncertainty to the outcome of the election is the participation of a political force led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who maintains support within a rival faction in the SLFP. Rajapaksa, who has been a formidable opposition figure to the National Unity Government, is contesting the elections separately with his faction as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). If the SLPP performs well in the election, it could strengthen Rajapaksa’s position within the SLFP and ultimately weaken the unity government.

While still in its early stages, Sri Lanka’s democratic transition has created opportunities for political reform and reconciliation following decades of civil war. Despite the slower than expected pace of reform, it is important to remember that only a few years ago organizations such as the United Nations and Freedom House were sounding alarms about Sri Lanka’s slide to authoritarianism. The outcome of the local government elections will provide the winner with political momentum that could affect the National Unity Government’s ability to further advance democratic reforms in the run-up to 2020 national elections. A weakening of the National Unity Government will have both domestic and international consequences that could affect Sri Lanka’s democratic consolidation in an increasingly geopolitically important region in Asia.