Postponing elections - no way!

The United National Party (UNP), protesting against the postponement of the local government polls by one year, has called upon the government to first appoint the four independent commissions (police, elections, public service and judiciary) and then hold the elections. On Thursday, UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuirya went on record saying that his party saw no point in holding elections without first setting up these four vital commissions as they had 'no confidence in the system.' The UNP has given the government three months for this purpose.

The UNP, according to Mr. Jayasuriya, has prepared the final draft of the Independent Commissions Bill with the concurrence of the joint Opposition and the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) and it would be made public next Tuesday. It is expert opinion, he says, that a three-month timeframe is sufficient for the establishment of these commissions.

The government's position on the UNP's proposal is not yet known. However, it is likely that the legal bigwigs of the government will put forth counter arguments and seek to justify the postponement of the polls by one year. Without the consensus of both parties, which does not appear to be forthcoming, the appointment of the commissions is likely to be a long-drawn process. Apart from the setting up of the commissions, there has been no final agreement on the reforms to be effected in the local government system and elections either.

All this is sure to take an inordinate time. The question is: Can the country wait that long for the mini polls?

It is not too cynical a view that people can do well or better without local government institutions. It is questioned by the public often whether these institutions serve any purpose; garbage piles up in heaps by the roadside, roads lack repairs and streets lighting, the ratepayers are denied services unless palms are oiled. People wonder whether they are represented at all in these councils by those whom they elect.

However disillusioned the public may be of these institutions, the elections to them are of crucial importance in a democracy. They offer an opportunity for political parties vying for power to be put to the test at grassroots level (provided of course that malpractices do not distort the outcome of the polls).

Postponement of an election on the other hand cannot be justified on any grounds. How democracy suffered in the past due to the postponement of elections (1976) and substitution of a referendum (1982) for them hardly needs reiteration for one to realise the danger of politicians tampering with the electoral process.

Doubtless, election malpractices and political interference with the police, the judiciary and the public service — the pillars upon which a democracy rests — have led to erosion of public confidence in the 'system' as Mr. Jayasuriya says. And remedial measures are called for immediately. The four commissions on the anvil appear to be a viable solution capable of revitalising the political system and restoring public confidence in it. Foot-dragging on the part of any party on the setting up of these commissions will question its democratic credentials. To say 'no' to an independent elections commission will be tantamount to saying 'yes' to rigging.

It behoves both main parties to avoid a tug-of-war at the expense of the much needed consensus to bring about these safeguards to democracy. The two parties (whose contribution to the erosion of public confidence in the electoral system is well known to the people) must put their heads together and try to clear the mess they have made over the years. The responsibility of the PA for devising these constitutional safeguards is more in that it is now at the helm of power and in the dock for political/election violence.

While the establishment of the four commissions is essential and must be given priority, postponing elections cannot be countenanced on any grounds as we have repeatedly pointed out. They must be held on schedule if the people are not to lose confidence further in the system.

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