By Javid Yusuf –
The run up to the Local Government Elections has been plagued with controversy mainly due to the delay of over two and a half years in calling for such Elections. Mercifully nominations have now been called for and the Elections are scheduled to be held in February 2018.
A delimitation of Local Government wards had been carried out by the previous Government. The Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils Faizer Musthapha appointed a panel headed by Asoka Pieris to review the previous delimitation which review process dragged on for several months resulting in the delay.
The Opposition cried foul and accused the Government of deliberately delaying the Local Government Elections. Adding fuel to the fire was the statement by Asoka Pieris that the Minister had asked him to deliberately delay the process.
Several amendments to the Local Government Elections which could have been enacted parallel to the review of the delimitation process in order to save time was instead presented to the Parliament only after the new delimitation was gazette.
Thereafter mistakes in the amending legislation necessitated further amendments thus contributing to additional delays. All this has resulted in the Minister having two no confidence motions moved against him. In Parliament Priyankara Jayaratne who was his Deputy Minister until recently dubbed him “Asamath” (inefficient).
The whole situation relating to the delay was further compounded by the totally unacceptable manner in which changes to the Local Government system was made. The Minister brought in changes to the Amending Bill at the Committee stage of Parliament which were completely at variance with the substantive nature of the Amending Bill which had been gazeted and was in the public domain.
The amendments moved at the Committee stage by the Minister not only took Parliamentarians by surprise but also deprived the public of an opportunity to discuss the merits or demerits of the changes sought to be made to the Local Government Election law. The legislative process set out in the Constitution which requires gazetting of any intended legislation is not only for the purpose of challenging such Bills in the Supreme Court but also to keep the citizenry informed and allow public discussion on the matter. Unfortunately in the case of the Local Government Election Law Reforms and later in the Provincial Council Election Law Reforms this essential step in the democratic reform process was not followed.
As a consequence of the flawed legislative process followed by the Minister, the opportunity to align the Local Government Election process with the expressed goal of a change in the political culture has been lost.
Among the several shortcomings in the amended Local Government Election Law two features stand out which negatively impact against the National Interest. The first is the absence of any provision which allows individuals to contest the Local Government Elections and the second is the creation of multi member seats for Local Government bodies.
The Local Government system is the third tier of Government and is the administrative level that is closest to the people. The proposed Constitutional Reforms have suggested an enhanced role for Local bodies with more administrative powers being conferred to them. This is to bring Government closer to the people and to make devolution of power more meaningful.
With the new system in large measure reverting to the old ward system which characterized Local Government in the past, it would have been prudent to include provisions that enabled public spirited individuals to come forward to serve the people as had happened previously.
Such individuals may not wish to be aligned with political parties but are known to the local community as persons with integrity and a commitment to serve society and easily identifiable at the local level. An infusion of such public spirited individuals into Local Government would greatly help in infusing new blood into the system and rehabilitating Local Government which had deteriorated rapidly in recent times. The Local Government system reached its lowest ebb in the last decade with members of Local bodies becoming a law unto themselves and running riot and engaging in all forms of corruption and other illegal activities.
Unfortunately the new system precludes and discourages well meaning public spirited individuals from playing their role in society. If any individual wishes to contest an election he can do so only if he does so through a political party or an independent list of candidates. If he chooses to contest as an independent the number of independent candidates he has to gather for such a list will vary according to the Local body in which he hopes to contest. For example for the Colombo Municipal Council he will have to gather a total of 113 candidates to be on his list out of which 34 have to be women. The deposit that he will have to pay is 565,000/-. For the Bulathsinhala Praddeshiya Sabha he will have to find 28 candidates including 8 women and pay a deposit of 140,000/-. For Walikamam North Pradeshiya Sabha he will have to find 38 candidates including 11 women and pay a deposit of 190,000/-. For the Muttur Pradeshiya Sabha he will have to find 24 candidates including 7 women and pay a deposit of 120,000/-. Any aspiring independent candidate wishing to contest any other local body in the country will have similar challenges before embarking on a mission to serve his community.
The need to make such an effort even before starting his campaign will completely dim the enthusiasm of any civic minded individual and make him give up his idea of serving his fellow community by seeking election to a Local Government body. In contrast if an individual is permitted to contest by himself all that he has to do is to pay a deposit of 5,000/- and walk round his ward and canvass around 1000 households to support him at the Election. The voter will judge him on his personal attributes of integrity and capability rather than his religious, ethnic or political identity. This will greatly enrich the quality of Local Government.
Another big flaw in the new system is the creation of multi member wards for Local bodies which is unprecedented and is unknown to the constituency based Local Government system of the past. The multi member constituency in the first past the post Parliamentary Elections was designed to facilitate representation of large concentrations of minorities in an electorate. Hence there was the Colombo Central, Colombo South, Beruwela, Harispattuwa electorates to name a few.
In the Parliamentary Elections there was a justification to ensure adequate representation of minorities because the Legislature has to enact legislation that effects different communities and groups and their voice has to be heard and their interests represented in the formulation of policy and the passage of laws at the highest levels.
In contrast at the Local Government level there is no legislation being passed and the special interests of communities do not have such a relevance. If in a rare situation such special interests of communities come into play the local Councillor is sufficiently close to his voter to understand and reflect such interest.
The function of Local bodies are more basic and involve the delivery of essential services effecting the day to day lives of the public which are common to all sections of the community. The ethnic or religious identity of a Councillor has no relevance to the delivery of such basic needs. What is of greater significance is the qualities of such an individual like personal integrity and commitment to public service which the local community can easily identify in individuals who live among them irrespective of his or her ethnic and religious identity.
What is important is to ensure that individuals like those who held office in the previous local bodies are not elected. The last set of Local bodies had several Councillors who ran riot and were accused of murder, rape and corruption and who could not be restrained or kept in check by the Law enforcement agencies.
It is this writers view that such wanton acts of abuse of power was the direct result of the institution of the Executive Presidency. When the Executive Presidency was seen as the repository of absolute power, those at the Local Government level arrogated to themselves similar powers acting as if they themselves were local ‘Executive Presidents’. However while institutions of Government do play apart in influencing the conduct of local politicians, the qualities of such individuals also are relevant in off setting the negative effects of institutional influence.
The impact of the creation of multimember constitutencies in Local bodies however has a larger National Impact. When the country is struggling to bring about National Reconciliation the building of understanding among the communities at grass root level is of critical importance. The multimember constituencies in the new Local Government bodies goes against the grain of the goals of National Reconciliation as espoused by the Yahapalana Government.
When voters at the grassroot level should be encouraged to look at the strengths and weaknesses of those who offer themselves for election to local bodies, instead the new system encourages them to look at ethnic and religious identities which are irrelevant to the functions that local bodies are required to perform.
When voters at Local Government look at the capabilities of Councillors whom they elect rather than their communal identities it will create greater understanding among the people and have a positive spiralling effect on the larger need of National Reconciliation. Otherwise it will institutionalise ethnic and religious identities at the community level and make the task of coexistence and National Reconciliation that much more harder.
Speaking in Parliament recently Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that a review of any shortcomings in the Local Government Election process would be made based on the experience of the forthcoming elections and any necessary changes made thereafter. It is hoped that such measures will take into account the impact of the Local Government Election laws on changing the political culture and National Reconciliation as well as steps to address any shortcomings in that regard.