By Sujata Gamage –
Last week, a Local Government Elections Reform Bill was passed in Parliament by a unanimous vote. As I have argued before, the problems with violence in elections or lack of accountability afterwards is not really about the system of elections.
The problems are due to the abuse of the electoral process for personal gain. As long as politics is viewed as a way of making a better living, come next election, we may find that we are no better under the new system.
The violence, and the greed which is the cause of the violence, will manifest in other forms. To flog a dead horse, the new system actually had buried away a good system that went bad due to bad politics. What is done is done. Let us look at the positives of the new.
The ward system
The new system is based on smaller units within a local authority called wards. I see a ray of hope in the ward system, in that politics can be influenced by grass-roots organizations in each ward, if the voters , middle class voters in particular, do their part. It is not too early for a few committed voters in each ward to understand the new system and get ready to change the culture of politics, one ward at a time.
According to the new system, a party or an independent group still has to put up a list of candidates for the local authority area as a whole. Unlike before, each name on the list has to be now assigned to a ward. The size and shape of a ward is to be determined by a delimitation commission. Political parties have always made political calculations based on their strengths in smaller units in a local authority. More often than not, these smaller units were remnants from the ward system we had prior to 1987.
The number of councillors in a council was also more or less based on the old ward system.
That means the Colombo Municipal Council, likely will be divided into nearly 50 wards more or less equal to the number of councillors we have now.
The ballot paper is simplified. A voter will see only the symbols and names of the parties contesting the election.
During the campaign each voter will have been informed about the face behind the symbol for each ward. Hopefully, elections laws will be obeyed and you would not have to ward away candidates’ faces on every fence and wall in your neighbourhood. Candidates will make themselves known at town meetings and visits to homes. With your vote, you will be voting for a representative for your ward as well as for a party.
Selection of additional councillors
The number of seats in the council will be the sum of the number of wards in the council area and an additional 30% of that number that is, if there are seven wards in a council there will be an additional two seats in the council. The additional seats are for the purpose of giving some recognition to the proportion of votes secured by each party. Although the new system is called a 70-30 combination of first-pass-the –post (FPP) system and proportional representation (PR) system, if you do the math, the seven-ward example shows that it is in fact an 80-20 system. It is still better than a 100-0 system because if you use purely FPP system, one party can secure all the wards even if they get only 51% of the votes in each ward, leaving the party that got 49% with nothing.
How are these additional councillors selected? The process is a bit complicated. A nomination paper by a party or an independent group is required to have two lists –list of candidates for wards and a list of additional persons. In the case of a council with seven wards, the additional list will have room for two names only. After all the votes are counted, the votes secured by the losing candidates will be used to determine how the two additional seats are to be allocated. If a party lost all the wards but got 49% of the vote that party will get all the additional seats.
However, their losing candidates are not eligible for those seats. The additional seats are to be assigned to those in the additional persons list. The ‘additional seats’ business is in the hands of the party bosses.
The party bosses in the winning party also get to select the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the council. If no party gets a majority the council elects the Chair and Vice Chair. If a councillor dies or resigns, the party can appoint anybody who is registered as a voter in the local authority to fill the vacancy.
Time to complain about bad politics
Under the new system, political parties and the political centre in Colombo get to be all powerful. No wonder the Bill was passed unanimously in Parliament. With no democracy within the parties and an all powerful presidency doing all it can to influence the political process, we can expect to see the same bad politics in a new package.
However, if each of us who have the time to complain about bad politics can use a little bit of that time to organize at the ward, we might be able to make a difference. Our primary objective would be to get the political parties to behave and give us candidates who are not rapists, murderers or robbers wanting to pick the public pocket.
As I see, there are two ways to make the parties behave. First, join the party that you dislike least. Before you join, ask whether there is local bala mandala or a party cell for your ward. Since wards have not been determined yet, use the name of the electoral sub division given in your voter registration card. If the party has no active cell in your area, ask for the name of the organizer for the parliamentary seat for the area and write to him or her.
Somehow, make sure there is an active party cell at the ward level with a sufficient number of people who cannot be duped with goodies.
Your goal would be to influence the selection of candidates for your ward from the party that you dislike least. If it succeeds, I am sure we will end up with parties we can call our own and leaders we adore.
Secondly, if you are not the party type, consider joining a local rate payer association or form one for your ward. Deshodaya is an initiative by Sarvodaya to involve civil society in government. You can check with the Sarvodaya Head Office about the Deshodaya for your locality. You may also check with the Centre for Policy Alternatives or one of the election monitoring groups for information on organizations committed to good governance in your area.
I’ll be trying one or more of these methods in the near future. Will keep you posted.
*The author is a Public Policy Scholar and Voter