Sri Lankan President Wickremesinghe’s party suggests referendum to postpone elections for two years

Sri Lankan President Wickremesinghe’s party suggests referendum to postpone elections for two years

Colombo | The United National Party headed by Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday suggested holding a referendum to postpone both presidential and general elections and extending the terms of both offices for two years to pursue much-needed economic reforms, a proposal that was immediately criticised by the opposition parties as unconstitutional.

The island nation's Elections Commission earlier this month said the presidential election would be conducted between September 17 and October 16.

United National Party (UNP) general secretary Palitha Range Bandara presented a proposal to postpone both the presidential and general elections by two years and emphasised that if circumstances warrant, this proposal can be formally submitted to Parliament, paving the way for a referendum, news portal reported.

“The UNP General Secretary highlighted a pivotal moment in Sri Lanka’s history. The nation faced economic adversity, but resolute measures were taken to steer it away from the brink. These efforts yielded significant victories,” Bandara told reporters here.

“We have regained international trust, stabilised the economy, and provided relief to our citizens. Administrative reforms have streamlined governance, and the education system has returned to normalcy,” he asserted.

Range Bandara attributed these achievements to the current President’s leadership and underscored that the country’s current needs do not align with an immediate Presidential or Parliamentary election.

“Instead, he called upon all members of parliament to rally behind a proposal: extending the current President’s term by two years (or potentially five), along with a corresponding extension of the current parliament’s tenure,” the news portal said.

Range Bandara urged unity across party lines, including opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s support, the news portal said.

The Government has reached agreements with the IMF, World Bank and other donors on economic reforms, and it is essential to extend the terms of the President and Parliament to make this exercise a success, another news portal, Daily Mirror, said, quoting Bandara.

“Stabilising the economy is more important than anything," Range Bandara told the media and added, “We propose a referendum to extend the terms of the President and Parliament as it is the most democratic way to do it.”

Incidentally, President Wickremesinghe, 75, last week reiterated his intention to hold the next presidential election this year ahead of the parliamentary election.

He had told the Cabinet meeting that day that financial allocations have only been reserved so far for the conduct of the presidential poll.

The UNP's call to extend the terms of both the president and the parliament was met with stiff resistance from opposition parties.

Tissa Attanayake, the national organiser of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) said it was unconstitutional to try to extend the president’s term.

"It can't be extended through a referendum,” he said.

Marxist-Leninist communist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) asserted that the move must be opposed by all democratic forces.

"This shows the president’s fear of facing the polls. He has already accepted defeat,” its spokesman, KD Lal Kantha, said.

Namal Rajapaksa, national organiser of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which provides Wickremesinghe with a parliamentary majority, said it was undemocratic to postpone elections.

“People’s right to vote must be protected,” he said. Namal accused Wickremesinghe’s UNP of having a history of election postponements, referring to the president's decision to not hold the local election scheduled for March last year.

The local election to elect over 340 local bodies was postponed citing the economic crisis.

The main Tamil party spokesman, MA Sumanthiran also opposed the move saying it was unconstitutional.

Wickremesinghe succeeded Sri Lanka People's Front - commonly known by its Sinhalese name Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) - elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to become president for the rest of the term when the latter was ousted after the island nation declared first international default, during street protests which lasted between April and July of 2022.

Rajapaksa gave in to calls for his resignation due to his inability to handle the unprecedented economic crisis. Wickremesinghe since taking over has steered the economy to safety by securing an IMF bailout. Analysts, however, feel that Sri Lanka is not completely out of the woods yet.

Minister of Fisheries and the leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party Douglas Devananda on Tuesday said President Wickremasinghe’s experience and performance, as well as his management ability, cannot be matched with any other politician in Sri Lanka.

Addressing the opening ceremony of the Training and Research building of the Medical Faculty of Jaffna University, the Sri Lankan Tamil minister said that because of the current economic crisis and the great instability in the country, it was his opinion that Wickremasinghe should continue to be the president and the people of the country should also have the same opinion.

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