The semi-official announcement that local government elections will be held in the first quarter of next year would undoubtedly be welcomed by the general public, starved as they have been of an opportunity to express their views regarding the government and the opposition.

These polls are overdue by more than a year. The official reason for the delay was that work regarding the delimitation of wards for the polls was in progress. Nevertheless, their repeated postponement led to many conspiracy theories, most of them floated by the Joint Opposition.

When they were dissolved, the overwhelming majority of local councils were under the control of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Although, theoretically at least, the UPFA is still in power as part of the National Unity government, there is a significant difference in the make-up of its leadership.

It is no secret that local councils were a particular level at which former President Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to exert his influence. Always a grassroots politician, he firmly believed in having a hold on the rank and file of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) membership. This he did through the local government bodies.

As a result, the local councils which were dissolved when their term of office ended were packed to the rafters with Rajapaksa loyalists. With the centre of power in the mainstream SLFP slowly but surely shifting towards President MathripalaSirisena, the SLFP is faced with a peculiar conundrum for the local government elections.

Among its former local councilors, some will contest from the mainstream SLFP. Others who remain loyal to Rajapaksa will contest separately, most likely from the newly formed Sri Lanka Peoples’ Front (SLPF).

It will be an interesting contest, even if the election is a ‘minor’ poll that will not affect who will govern the country over the next few years. That is because it will not only pit the two main parties in the National Unity government, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP) against each other but also create a confrontation between the two factions within the SLFP, as the SLPF will have to contest without the  blessings of the SLFP.

The Rajapaksa regime had many flaws during its ten years in office. However one charge that cannot be levelled against it is not holding elections. It held presidential, general, provincial and local government elections on schedule, albeit to maintain its stranglehold on power.

It is now time for the National Unity government to similarly to test the waters. If the outcome is in its favour, it can be content that the masses are happy with its performance so far.

On the other hand, if it does not get the endorsement it expects, it would be an opportune moment to reflect on the outcome. It can do so at virtually no political cost, because the outcome of the poll does not affect the balance of power equation on a national scale.

The specific details of how the elections would be held have not been announced yet. That too will become significant because there are moves to change the system of elections from a purely proportional representation system to a hybrid with the first-past-the-post system.

Political parties will be watching this process too with great interest especially because it could be a forerunner to similar changes for the general elections under the new Constitution that is presently being formulated.

Elections are the price democracy pays for its upkeep. It is commendable that the government has decided, even if belatedly, to go ahead with the local government elections. The government will do well to allow a free and fair poll and let the voice of the people be heard. That way, it can mend its ways if it needs to with ample time left before the next national elections- and avoid the fate that befell the government it replaced.