By Laksiri Fernando –
“The force of free people resides in the municipality” – Alexis de Tocqueville
In today’s politics, people usually look up to their leaders, representatives and the centers of power for solutions. As we have seen in the first part of this article (“Constitution Making and Strengthening Horizontal Democracy”), this thinking ruptures during progressive revolutionary upheavals or movements. However, this has not really been the case in Sri Lanka.
For example, the leaders of the two rebellions or insurgencies, the JVP and the LTTE, in the South and in the North, wanted to create similar vertical structures instead of moving in the direction of more democratic horizontal structures. The political structures that the LTTE created were one good example. It is not clear yet, whether the incipient democracy movements that emerged last year are going in a different or the right direction. I am also not clear whether they are already dead or not!
There are, however, new ways of communities and people looking at themselves and working together in finding solutions to their problems without necessarily neglecting or rejecting the usefulness of the vertical structures that are existing. I am in fact proposing a Middle Path. It is in this context that the importance of the local government system is important to our discussion.
To reiterate, horizontal democracy and vertical democracy are not diametrically opposed to each other. Even in respect of local governance, there are strong elements of vertical structures which can be reformed and changed. Moreover, they are much closer to the people. To give a ‘quantified’ example, the distance between the people and Parliament in Sri Lanka is more than ‘300 times higher’ than the distance between the people and a local council. There is one parliament, but 336 local councils. It may be a crude calculation, but the essence nevertheless is true. But in respect of capacity or power, the difference is quite the opposite given the existing legislation. This is why both horizontal and vertical structures are important in democracy and why horizontal structures should be strengthened with necessary capacity and ‘power.’
After the next elections there will be 336 (not 335) local government bodies for approximately a 21 million population in Sri Lanka which is not a bad count by any means, as an average. Among them, 272 will be divisional councils (‘Pradeshiya Sabhas’), 40 urban councils and 24 municipalities. There is a new addition of Millaniya PS in the Kalutara district. One may even argue that the number can be reduced in the future, if the efficiency is increased, while strengthening the internal democratic structures. In Australia, there are only 565 councils to that massive size of the country, although the population is 23 million.
There is an obvious underestimation of urbanization in Sri Lanka with only 64 urban and municipal councils, and thus not delivering proper services to those populations within the present structure. In the Kalutara district, for example, there is no municipal council and only 4 urban councils. At present, the urbanization is calculated on the basis of the population in the urban and municipal council areas and not the other way round. The program for Megapolis might rectify this imbalance in the Western province, but probably getting the wrong end of the stick. There should always be a balance between ‘democracy and efficiency’ in all these type of reforms or otherwise one betrays the other.
There are four districts, Polonnaruwa, Moneragala, Kilinochchi and Mullativu with only ‘Pradeshiya Sabhas.’ The situation of latter two districts may be understandable due to the war situation in the past. But the situation in the former two districts, among other factors, signify some serious planning defects in respect of the present local government system.
Importance of LGs
The importance of the local government system is undeniable for democracy. When it is stifled, in a country like Sri Lanka, insurgency may erupt. There is one good example from our recent history. The withholding of elections to these councils between 1977 and 1988 was a major ‘root cause’ (though not the only one) of the insurrection that erupted in the North East in the form of separatist terrorist movement and that movement again prevented the holding of elections in those areas between 1994 and 2011. This is a lesson even for today not to postpone the local government elections unnecessarily. The opposition to “Yahapalanaya” might erupt from that source as some indications are already visible.
There were other defects of the local government system impinging on the democratic system or even the ethnic conflict in the country. Before the 13th Amendment, the system came under the control of the Minister in Colombo. The grievance on the part of the North was that the Minister favored the local councils in the South, neglecting the North and the East. Real or perceived, the accusation highlighted the importance of equal opportunity and equal treatment principles. The distances also mattered combined with language issues. This problem now is largely settled as the local government system is placed under the Provincial Councils. However, this imbalance may again arise within provinces (i.e. Eastern) if proper democratic structures and practices are not in place.
Democracy is also not an abstract concept. Even people can become disgruntled about democracy, if the democratic institutions or structures cannot deliver necessary services and benefits to the people. This is a simple truth. When one looks at the purposes of the local government system, the tasks are impressive and closely relevant to the people’s lives and needs. The potential is enormous.
The functions of the local government include as they stand (1) health and sanitation (2) construction and maintenance of local roads (3) housing and matters related to housing (4) public markets, parks, libraries, and (5) other utility services to the citizens. All these matters are listed under the objective of the “promotion of the comfort, convenience, and the welfare of the people.” Even ‘community development’ is added to the list in respect of the ‘Pradeshiya Sabhas’ since 1987. If these tasks are properly addressed, and the functions are faithfully performed, even employment could be generated and people’s livelihood needs enhanced. Of course the functions and powers differ from the ‘predeshiya sabhas’ to the urban councils or urban councils to the municipal councils. However, the above could be considered the main contours of the system.
The government has now published the demarcation of 4,834 wards applicable to the forthcoming LG elections. This is for 336 LG bodies with 4,583 single member and 251 multimember wards. It is not yet clear, however, whether the elections would be held only on the ward basis (under FPP) or a proportional representation also would be calculated above it as prescribed in the Local Government Elections Act as amended in 2012. The government gazette indicates the total of 5,099 members to be elected for 336 bodies. This is already an increase from the present number of 4,486. If the gazette has determined (as it appears) the number of council members, as the breakdowns have given for each and every LG body, then the PR calculation would be simply redundant.
This might vindicate what I have argued since 1999 (“A New Electoral System for Sri Lanka?”), that there is no much point in having a complicated PR system for local government elections, let alone the disastrous preferential voting. Newly demarcated 251 multimember seats could take care of some of the concerns that prompted a PR system at the local level. At local government elections, the priority should be for the selection of the best performing candidates and not necessarily the political parties.
- There are considerable opportunities even within the existing system to enhance people’s participation that some of the civil society organizations are apparently talking about. It is announced that the next local government elections would be held under the Ward system. This is an opportunity to form and strengthen the Ward based people’s or citizens’ committees and organizations. This would be an enhancement of horizontal democracy. What might be possible is to form Ward Committees of the Citizens including the elected member or members, all contested candidates and representatives of the civil society organizations to look after the interests of the people in each and every ward of the relevant LG body.
- As the two main political parties that are going to contest the LG elections, the UNP and the SLFP, are also in the same ‘Yahapalana’ government, the main competition or the selection should be about the best or the better candidate/s and not merely about the best party or the policies. At the local level, there is no much point in having ‘deadly’ party competitions. No one is going to rule the country by getting elected to a local council! Their task is to deliver the services to the people and the community.
- There is a pressing need to resurrect the ‘committee system’ of governance, particularly in the local government system. The excessive powers of the Chairmen should be checked with the objective of abolishing them in the future. In the case of ‘Pradeshiya Sabhas’ already there is provision for appointing committees even with the participation of the citizens in the community (Section 12 of the Act). They can be on (a) finance and policy making (b) housing and community development (c) technical services and (d) environment and amenities. These are not formed or functioning. These should be implemented.
- There is a clear prohibition of members or officers having direct or indirect financial interest in contracts or works of the ‘Pradeshiya Sabhas.’ It is a punishable offense although clearly violated in practice (Section 219 of the Act). This provision should be fully implemented.
- Most importantly, the local government system should be enshrined in the New Constitution. At present it is ‘enshrined’ or rather mentioned by default with the 13th Amendment as a devolved power. While this should be the case even in the future, there can be a Chapter on Local Governance emphasizing its importance, functions and revised structure/s with more accountability, efficiency and people’s participation.