Sri Lanka can’t even afford to hold first poll since crisis, says election commission

A severely cash-strapped Sri Lanka lacks funds to even hold local elections scheduled for next month, the country's election agency said.

The 9 March elections would be the first polls held in the South Asian country since last year's economic turmoil.

The Election Commission informed the country's apex court on Monday that it has not received the required funds from the government's treasury department.

The Election Commission has also not received backing from other agencies, including the government printer and police for the upcoming ballot, chairperson Nimal Punchihewa told Bloomberg.

The election body’s statement to the country’s top court was in connection with petitions filed by opposition parties, seeking a court writ ordering the conduct of the polls. The Supreme Court is likely to hear a petition calling for the postponement of polls later this week.

Cabinet spokesperson Bandula Gunawardana had earlier this month claimed that cash flow difficulties could affect the elections.

The opposition in Sri Lanka, along with civil society members, accused president Ranil Wickremesinghe of postponing the local government polls citing a lack of funds. The upcoming polls won't affect the government's majority in the 225-seat parliament, however, it is seen as a test of the popularity of the governing coalition, which has been under fire for raising taxes and power tariffs.

The election to appoint 340 local council administrators for a four-year term was postponed since March last year due to the unprecedented economic crisis.

"We want the election," members of the opposition raised slogans as they staged a protest holding placards. The House was shortly adjourned till 9.30am Wednesday amid the din.

Earlier on Monday, thousands of supporters of Samagi Jana Balawegaya, or United Peoples’ Power party, shouted anti-government slogans as they marched toward the centre of capital Colombo, demanding elections without further delay.

The protesters were blocked by the local police, who resorted to firing tear gas and a water cannon to disperse the crowd.

“We are out here on the streets today to force the government to hold the local election. We will continue our struggle,” Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the opposition, said.

Former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday spoke out against postponing the elections. “Elections are not meant to be postponed. We opine that the election should go ahead as scheduled,” he was quoted by Daily Mirror as saying.

The nation of 22 million citizens is reeling from its worst economic crisis since gaining independence in 1948, due to shortage of foreign currency, surging prices and a lack of essential items.

The bankrupt nation has suspended repayment of foreign debt pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $2.9bn bailout package.

Sri Lanka’s foreign debt exceeds $51bn, of which $28bn must be repaid by 2027.