Colombo Telegraph

Have We Found A Solution To Our LG Conundrum?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Have we found a solution to our local government (LG) conundrum with the recent ‘women’s representation’ bill adopted on 9 February? Perhaps nearly, but not really.

The local government system has been in the doldrums for some years or decades now, and the recent hiccups have added to the drama in unmeasurable terms. Problems are both structural and political. All local government bodies expired by 15 May 2015, and some of them much earlier. There are delays in conducting elections apparently for several articulated and unarticulated reasons. Two reasons attributed are (1) some technical defects found by the National Elections Commission (NEP) in election legislation, and (2) the difficulties encountered by the Ministry (Provincial Councils and Local Government) in finalizing the delimitation of Wards.

However, “Waiting for Polls” (Editorial, ‘The Island,’ 4 March 2012) should not be like ‘Waiting for Godot.’ There can be drastic consequences for democracy, if the elections are delayed unnecessarily.

Alienation from the Local

Let me discuss some of the political matters first in respect of the LG conundrum. The local government institutions are primarily for resolving local issues and supplying services to the local communities. This is one way of developing a country from ‘bottom-up,’ provided that necessary resources are given through the national budget and the equally important ‘political will’ is there.

But throughout years, the local government institutions have excessively got involved in national politics and have neglected their primary tasks. In defining the tasks of local government or governance, I will go by John-Mary Kauzya (Ugandan) who has supplied a useful description:

“What determines whether governance is local or not is the extent to which the local population is involved in steering (i.e. determination the direction) according to their local needs, problems and priorities.”

The above was presented in a paper in Stockholm in May 2000. The emphasis is not only on ‘local needs, problems and priorities,’ but also on the ‘involvement of local population.’

Unfortunately, there are some people in Sri Lanka who consider all matters in one ‘political soup.’ They are overwhelmingly men. For them, ‘division of labour’ or ‘differentiation of tasks’ are not important or simply incomprehensible (except in the case of gender matters!). For them, ‘the legislative, the executive and the judicial’ tasks are the same, or they should be handled all-together. Likewise, there is no or should not be much difference between ‘national, provincial or local tasks.’ All are the same or should be handled in the same manner. This is in a way the ‘unitary thinking.’ Not that they not involve local people. But they promote local people to ‘revere them’ or revere some ‘supreme leaders’ even above them. This is ‘Kim Il-sung’ thinking.

I am not saying that local politics should be completely divorced from national or provincial politics. But there should be some reasonable limits and demarcations. Even local government institutions can and should be ‘sounding boards,’ to mean echoing local needs and also ideas to the provincial and national levels. However, this should be divorced from blindly going behind national politicians or politics. This is about intensifying micro level democratic governance.

The level of alienation of some local councillors/politicians from ‘local interests’ was recently demonstrated starkly by their polarization on the leadership issues particularly within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). At a Negombo meeting in February, it was reported that a majority of the SLFP local councillors wanted a ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa come back.’ Even thereafter, the local councillors of the Western Province (SLFP) met for the same purpose.

It is understandable, if those councillors got together to demand for an early election. Or if they expressed their leadership choice as party members. But this was completely different. They have never in the past to my knowledge met to discuss ‘how to improve performance or services to the people.’ This shows that their main concerns are distortedly ‘national,’ and not local.

Causes of Alienation

It is a historical fact that in the formation of political parties or political mobilizations in Sri Lanka, local/village representatives and leaders were often utilized by national leaders as potent force. There is nothing particularly wrong in that. But even that should not be at the expense of local interests. Sri Lanka is a country where there has been a long tradition of vibrant or rather ‘autonomous’ village organizations of ‘Gam Sabhas.’ Those traditions should be continued and strengthened. The local leaders of those days were committed to the village and community interests. This was the case before, and even after the independence, well into the 1970s, when the distortions started to take place.

The importance can be highlighted in other ways as well. For example, if a responsive and vibrant local government system had existed, calamities like ‘Rathupaswala’ could have been avoided before developing into national crises. At ‘Rathupaswala,’ it was a matter of ground water pollution, coming clearly under the purview of the local government of the area in the first place.

What has happened in recent past is the alienation of local councillors from local needs, interests or the people for several reasons. One of the primary reasons for the situation is the ‘abolition of the Ward system’ where a local councillor previously was elected and linked to the people in a contiguous area. Although the proportional representation had some merits, since a candidate for election had to receive votes from the whole council area, it required more and more money on a competitive basis and thus leading to corrupt and insidious practices aggravated by the ‘Manape’ (preferential vote) competition. The system also propelled electoral violence, much publicised killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra in 2011 being one prominent incident.

The system discouraged the ‘educated, women and moderate income groups’ contesting from political parties or independently. Independent individual candidates had special disadvantages because they had to contest as ‘groups’ and tender exorbitant deposits. There was a ‘monopoly’ created for the political parties. It was the National Secretary of the party or his agent who has to submit the nomination papers. Independence or the views of the local party organizations were often neglected.

Amendment in 2012

There had been many positive discussions and initiatives on the electoral system, but a major weakness was to consider what was ‘good or bad’ for the national system, to be equally the same for the local government system. This was a wrong assumption. The 2012 local government electoral reforms were based on this assumption. In addition, there were many ‘technical’ defects in that piece of legislation, perhaps showing the ‘diminishing quality’ of legislative enactments in the country in general.

As the Chairman of the NEC has pointed out, the legislation leaves it blank who is supposed to call the local government elections. There are many other ‘technical’ issues as he has pointed out. The Commission has also taken up the issue of declaration of ‘assets and liabilities.’ It is absolutely a farce. According to the amendment, an election should be held not less than five weeks and not more than seven weeks of nominations. However, the declaration of assets and liabilities can be submitted within three months and that means even after the elections. It is also not specified who should submit the declarations, the candidates or the party secretary/group leaders. There is no penalty specified for the defaulters. Of course some of the defects are within the primary legislation.

Most horrendous is the deposit system. It is only Rs. 5,000 for a party candidate. But for an independent candidate, it is a whopping 20,000. The independent candidates have to contest as a list. The list should be equivalent to the number of wards (N), + 30 percent under the 2012 amendment, and another + 25 percent under the recent amendment. The main consequence is the amount of deposits that they have to submit. It is completely discriminatory for independent candidates, in my opinion, who should and could play a major role in local government matters.

It is hilarious to note that while the deposits should be submitted by the party secretary/agent, or the leader in the case of independent candidates, if the deposits are not forfeited, they will be returned to the candidates.

There are so many other deficiencies and defects, but most glaring is the following.

“Outside the polling station, [there should be] a notice specifying the names of candidates as indicated by each recognized political party and independent group, in alphabetical order in Sinhala and the approved symbol allotted to each such party or group.” (My emphasis).

It is possible for someone to argue that the above means ‘the Sinhala alphabet’ and not ‘the notice of names in Sinhala.’ However, it is not possible because in the same amendment what is prescribed before is not the ‘Sinhala alphabet’ but the English alphabet. I have tried my best to locate the Sinhala version of the Amended Act (2012) to dispel any doubts, but even it is not available in the ministry website. What was available in Sinhala under ‘Panath’ (Acts), until today, were the Special Provisions Act (30 of 2013) on Recruitment and some other instruments/documents on management improvement.

Therefore, it is my submission that ‘Sinhala only’ has come into the picture in the Amendment under the previous Rajapaksa administration, and it would be completely discriminatory and absurd to post notices outside polling stations in Sinhala only, in predominantly Tamil speaking areas, to say the least.

New Amendment (2016)

Compared to the 2012 Amendment, the new Amendment undoubtedly is progressive. It ensures 25 percent women representation in all local government institutions. The position was only 1.8 percent under the previous system, one of the lowest in Asia. The 2012 amendment did allow, discretionary 30 percent nominations for women and youth, but the provisions were absolutely vague. The ‘nomination’ also does not mean ‘representation.’

Therefore, the new Amendment (2016) is commendable, but it has also created certain other anomalies or inconsistencies. Let me briefly touch on some of those problems.

What is in store under both amendments is a hybrid system. After a certain number of councillors elected from wards (both single and multi-member), the 2012 amendment provides to elect another 30 percent under a particular ‘proportional formula.’ Now the 2016 amendment provides another 25 percent women representation under a ‘different proportional formula.’ My first point is that this is going to be unnecessarily excessive in terms of numbers.

According to the preliminary delimitation (August 2015) the number of ward members would be 5,099 for 336 local government bodies. Under the hybrid principle of 2012, this will be increased to 6,628. Under the new amendment, it will be again increased to 8,285. It appears that the politicians, on both sides, are going by the ‘more the merrier principle.’ The existing number is 4,486 and the increase is about 85 percent.

There are other anomalies created which could be a nightmare for the elections commission. (1) The two prescribed proportional formulas are different, although the new formula is simple and logical. (2) The 2012 amendment prescribed a single nomination list, while the new amendment prescribes two lists. (3) The prescribed 2012 list is in ‘alphabetical order,’ while the new list for women representation is in ‘priority order.’

Conclusion

On the upside, the new amendment prevents manipulation of lists by party leaders after elections. Also the prescribed proportional representation allows smaller parties to achieve representation, even if they fail to win wards or get through under the 30 percent. However, this is through women representatives. The new amendment firmly ensures 25 percent women representation in local bodies.

Whatever the other weaknesses or drawbacks, if the New Amendment had substituted the proportional component (30 percent) of the 2012 amendment, not only that most of the inconsistencies could have been avoided, but the numbers also could have been kept under a reasonable level. That is why I consider that the new ‘amendment for women representation’ has come near a solution to the LG conundrum, but have failed to achieve it. The government may still consider changing the situation, but quickly.

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