Why Parliament Should Not Rush The Local Government Elections Bill
By Sujata Gamage, PhD MPA
A bill to amend the Local Government Elections Ordinance and another to amend the Municipal Council, Urban Council and Pradeshiya Sabha Ordinances, respectively, were tabled in parliament on Thursday, October 21. The pivotal change to be brought about through the Elections Reform Bill is the replacement of the current proportional representation system with a mixed mode system where representatives will be elected for each sub-division of a local authority by a first-past-the-post contest in each sub-division or ward.
However, candidates for wards can be nominated only by a party or an independent group at substantial cost per candidate. In the case of an independent group the deposit per candidate is Rs: 20,000. An additional number of seats in the council, equaling 30% of the number of wards in the locality, are to be selected from a list of additional persons put forward by each party or independent group at the time of nomination.
These seats which we may call Proportional Representation (PR) seats are allocated to each party on the basis of votes garnered by their losing candidates (not counting candidates who get less than 5%). If any one party wins more than 50 percent of the seats in the council the secretary of that party will be called upon to nominate the mayor. Otherwise the council will elect a mayor.
Many other provisions that will markedly change the face of local governance by essentially transferring power from the localities to political parties are in the proposed legislation. Proposed mixed mode of system election has been extensively discussed by a select committee of parliament but application of the same to the local government system has not received the same attention. By law, the elections to local government have to be completed in time to have the councils commencing by or before April 16, 2011. It is not fair by ‘local governance’ to have this new election system imposed on it in this short time, particularly when new wards have to be demarcated. Unfortunately, local governance seems to have no strong champions in parliament or outside.
From 1936 onwards, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, as the chairman of executive committee on local government and then the minister for local government was instrumental in widening and empowering the local government system. In the ‘80s President Premadasa acted with understanding and caring for local governance to strengthen the executive powers of the chairpersons and mayors through amendments to the respective ordinances. Who in the present parliament will rise to the occasion? Whoever you are, this analysis is for you.
New system marks a shift of power from people to political parties
Many issues need to be addressed before applying the new system to local government. Contrary to appearance, the proposed reforms are not about representation at the ward level. Voters will be essentially voting for a slate of names put forward by a party. Yes, each person in that list will be assigned a ward but voters will have no further say about the individual who would represent them. Once a party is elected to power all further decisions are to made by the secretary of the elected party. The mayor will be designated by the party secretary. If a council member dies or resigns, the party secretary can designate any person only requirement being that person is qualified to be elected to that local authority.
Party politics at the local level is unavoidable but do we need a system that gives political parties total control of local governance? Local government is fundamentally different from other two levels of government. Parliament is a legislative body. Local authorities may make by-laws as needed, but their basic functions are executive in nature and concern the “regulation, control and the administration of all matters relating to the public health, public utility services and public thoroughfares, and generally with the protection and promotion of the comfort, convenience and welfare of the people and amenities of the municipality”. Who is better qualified to understand and address these issues? A council led by a mayor elected by popular vote or a secretary of a political party?
PR system with modifications will serve local governance better
The Proportional Representation system is much maligned for its “Manape Pore” or intra-party clashes for preferential votes, cost of elections, violence and lack of proximity between representatives and people. Bringing back the ward system of elections is supposed to cure these ills. Let us do a quick comparison of the two methods, the proposed Mixed-mode system and the current PR system as applied to local government.
PR is simpler
Beginning with first local government election under PR in 1991, the proportional representation method has been tried and tested for over 20 years in the local government sector. Although somewhat more complex to operate than the previous First-Past-the-Post or FPP system, people of this country have adapted fairly well with a spoiled vote rate of only about 5% on average in past local government elections. Having three votes per person gives the voter the ability to vote for persons close to home and vote for a leader with electorate-wide capabilities and credentials. The new mixed mode is more complex and confusing than the existing PR system.
Costs can be managed
It is true that the proportional representation system forces candidates to seek votes from across the electorate. A local authority electorate may consist of 40-50 Grams Niladari Divisions (GNDs). Inevitably the cost of campaigning would be higher in PR since the electoral unit for all candidates is the full electorate. PR combined with manape worsens the situation with candidates from the same party competing with each other fiercely for a higher manape. However, according to the opinion of members of the executive committee of the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA), the situation is less intense at the local level because the areas to be covered are significantly less than in a provincial or parliamentary election. They are also of the opinion that the costs are largely incurred in the unlawful use of posters and cutouts and those would not be a problem if election laws that prohibit those are strictly enforced.
PR cannot be blamed for violence
Neither the PR system nor the mixed mode can change societal levels of tolerance for violence. In moving from PR to mixed mode, intimidation practised at the pradeshiya level will be brought down to the ward or village level. As long as communities send an implicit message of approval to candidates by electing those who seem to show most muscle power, violence will continue be a feature of Sri Lankan elections.
Proximity to voter has been achieved through PR
At first sight, the reintroduction of a mixed mode system of elections will enable voters to elect a representative who will be accountable to their ward. However, before fully endorsing a mixed mode system on this basis we should be aware of the fact that the proximity problem has been successfully addressed in many local authorities elected through PR. A good example is the Wariyapola Pradeshiya Sabha where the chairperson has assigned one or more Grama Niladari Divisions to each elected councilor for the purpose of coordinating with the gramiya kamitu in each GN division. Prior to the budget process, the chairperson writes to members of council, registered gramiya kamitu and other stakeholders to identify their needs.
For example, in the 2009 budget process many gramiya kamitus presented their proposals, through their councilor, to the Participatory Development Committee of the Wariyapola Pradeshiya Sabha. In a quick survey of 70 councilors from 60 local authorities in three provinces we were able to uncover at least 12 authorities where such arrangement are in place as a rule and 20 local authorities where representatives are allocated GNDs for specific programmes such as the Gama Neguma. Only one respondent said the allocations were given only to the councilors belonging to the governing party.
If lawmakers are truly interested in bringing representatives closer to the people, they don’t need opt for a complex elections system. The current practice of voluntary assignment of GNDs to elected representatives can be made mandatory through legislation.
Mixed-mode method as proposed will weaken local government
Most importantly, the proposed ward-based election system is likely to significantly weaken the local authorities as institutions.
Sri Lanka in the old days had a system of local government at the level of the village, but life was much simpler then. Take the case of waste management. Plastics and polythene packaging did not exist then. Neither were laminated wood products and molded plastic furniture that defy natural biodegradable processes. Today our villagers have tractors and they can use mobile phones, but, they now have to deal with the disposal of hazardous waste like used diesel oil from tractors or used batteries from mobile phones.
Today these are problems real to communities as remote as Meemure in the Central Province. Burning or burying this waste is no longer an option. Sri Lanka is now a densely populated country. What each of us does affects the ground water and the air we breathe. Solutions to such problems as garbage belong at the present time in the category of functions that cannot be performed effectively at the village level.
Although terms like ‘Jana Sabha’ sound well and good we need to very clearly understand that, on our way to the utopia of self-government by villages we need to reach self-government at the pradeshiya level first. Our situation is different from India. In the ‘90s India embarked on a Panchayatt system to bring self-government to villages. They did so because they did not have functioning local governments like Sri Lanka.
In our country we had the first local government in Colombo and Kandy established as long ago as 1865. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was instrumental in extending the system and making them elected bodies. Although the performance of many local authorities today leave much to be desired, our research in the solid waste area shows that there are at least 50 local authorities who are doing an exemplary job managing their solid waste. With enough carrots and sticks the central government can play its regulatory role to get the other 280 or so local authorities to perform.
The President and Cabinet have other good reasons to strengthen local government. Take the case of the man who recently climbed a hoarding and demanded to be seen by the President. Crazy as his action was, it was symbolic of the lack of avenues for ordinary people to seek solace from their daily frustrations, be they due to personal reasons, or reasons of negligence by institutions. The presidency, major political parties and other national institutions cannot be everything for everybody. For its own good, the central government needs strong local institutions.
A strong local government system will also be the first line of defence against frustrated youth or ethnic minorities who may otherwise vent their anger on the central government causing a threat to national security and unity.
PR has led to the growth of strong local leaders who can be the drivers of the government’s ambitious plan for economic growth through rural development.
PR has given the opportunity for young leaders to emerge at the pradeshiya level and many of these leaders have made their constituencies engines of economic growth. Take developments in solid waste management of which I have had the opportunity to carry out research in the past few years. Today, for example, the Balangoda Urban Council, under the leadership of the Chairman, Nimal Weerasinghe is set to sign an agreement with Fertilizer Corporation to provide 100 metric tonnes of compost made from municipal waste monthly to the Corporation. This is a municipality that earlier spent money to dispose its waste. If not for the youth quota in the PR method, Weerasinghe says he would not have been able to emerge as a leader in the Balangoda Urban Council. Without the executive powers due to him as leader of the urban council he would not have been able to perform as well.
If enterprising individuals like Weerasinghe are limited to a ‘kottasaya,’ there will not be many opportunities for pradeshiya leaders to emerge. Only a leader who campaigns across the local pradeshiya sabha (or urban council or municipal council) area as a whole will get the popular backing and holistic view which is necessary to develop a local government area as a whole.
Similarly, if election of the chairperson or mayor is left to the councilors, as required in mixed mode in the event no party has emerged as a winner, money and power can play a big part in thwarting good leaders and selection of weak leaders who can be manipulated.
Ineffective or corrupt leaders are there not because of PR but because they have been allowed to continue by higher authorities
Along with the changes to the election laws, the additional amendments to local government ordinances seek to remove some of the immunity powers accorded to the chairpersons or mayors at Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils. The case of a particular chairperson in the Western Province who apparently flouts financial regulations yet manage to hold on to power is being held out as a reason why the powers of the chairpersons or mayors should be curtailed. On closer examination it appears that the problem lies with the provincial authorities who have failed to follow due process in examining the alleged violations, and not necessarily the immunity provisions in the relevant local government ordinance.
We may foresee a time when the level of decentralisation and autonomy extends down to village level with the basic unit of political representation being a jana sabha or an assembly of people, but, until then, the national policy for local government clearly articulates the exclusive role of the pradeshiya sabha (or urban or municipal councils) as the fundamental unit of local government.
“Overall medium-term objective of this policy is to make local authorities an integral part of the system of representative government with the highest permissible level of democratic decentralisation and autonomy, backed by corresponding powers and resources.” (National Policy on Local Government, Gazette No. 1632/26, September 18, 2009)