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Three Amendments to Local Government Election Bill

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

(October 25, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) The notion of constructive criticism and positive and creative intervention is not on the agenda of oppositional politics in Sri Lanka. This criticism applies not only to the oppositional political parties but also to oppositional civil society in Colombo. This has been clearly demonstrated by the responses of the opposition to The Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill 2010. It seems that the United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance will vote against the bill in Parliament. At the time of writing, Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has also said that it will vote against the bill. Let me begin with by saying that the bill to reform the local government election is the most democratic bill that this government has so far presented to Parliament, some flaws and deficiencies therein notwithstanding. It is a response to the demands of the people that the existing electoral system should be changed to revert to the old system that made the representative more accountable. In my view, this should be the point of departure of the opposition when it is responding to the present bill. Having read some of the responses by the UNP, TNA and the liberal civil society in Colombo, I found that their starting point was different and their principal criticism flawed. They have, in fact, failed to see the positive elements of the bill and according to them positivity of the bill is very marginal. This is what some commentators had to say: "The Bill has several salient features including strengthening the processes for counting and polling in order to ensure the integrity of an election. Although positive measures are noted, there are serious concerns with several provisions introduced in the Bill.." (italics added) (www.groundviews.lk). Having noted these ‘marginal’ improvements, they have come to the following conclusion: "The Bill has significant repercussions for representative democracy, including the increase in challenges for minor parties and independent groups to secure seats, thereby reinforcing the two-party system". It is interesting to note that the criticisms of the opposition political parties are also based on a similar position. In my view, the conclusion of the aforementioned article and the position of the opposition political parties are absolutely wrong and the bill with the three principal amendments in association with some minor amendments will, in fact, enhance and improve the representative democracy in this country. Moreover, if this process is extended to national and provincial level elections, of course, with relevant changes, it will make Sri Lankan political system just and representative. My submission in this article reads as follows: The Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill 2010 will strengthen the representative system in Sri Lanka and it will also provide a better space for small parties and independent candidates if the necessary changes that are outlined below are made. The proposed system will also contribute to an increase in women’s representation in politics.

Let me elaborate on my argument and explain the three principal amendments that are in my view necessary. Many seem to believe that the proportional representation system (PRS) is a better system for small parties and independent candidates. Hence, the argument goes that the representation under PRS should be given more weight in electoral reforms. Similarly, the argument tends to attribute the rise of two-party system to the first-past-the post system (FPPS). Increasing PRS representation beyond the proposed 30 per cent maxima can be justified not for these reasons but others. Among them the most important one is to counter representational deficiency of the FPPS that leads to an outcome of ‘winner takes all’. In order to give more space to smaller parties and independent candidates and to strengthen people representation, what is imperative is to change the proposed mandatory requirement that each party and independent group should submit two lists of nominations, one for ward-based system and the other for PRS. This favours big and wealthy candidates. In my opinion, this is the basic flaw of the proposed bill and it can be amended without disturbing the underlying logic of the bill. Hence Amendment 1: It is mandatory to submit two lists only by the parties and independent groups that seek representation under PRS. If representation through PRS is not sought, parties or independent candidates should be allowed to contest the number of seats that they wish to contest. Hence, for example, an independent woman candidate, if she thinks she could win the constituency in which she lives, can contest. This requires another small change. If a member is elected under the ward based system resigns, dies, or is unseated for valid reasons, a by-election should be held to elect a new member. The amendment of this kind would provide a space for new people outside established political parties to come forward and contest. In the past, independent candidates competed with the candidates of the established parties and won in some places on the basis of their social work and integrity. Political parties, in fact, considered them as potential candidates. In this sense, established political parties would be benefited by this kind of amendment.

The second amendment I propose is about the 30 maxima under PRS. However, my submission is based on a different argument. As we all are aware, the FPPS has inherent bias towards the winning candidate. Suppose the percentages of votes cast at the election of Ward No 1 of local government area is as given in Table 1.

In this example, the candidate A is elected according to the FPPS. However, at least formal sense, 70 per cent votes were cast against him or not in favour of him. If this is the case in many wards, it is not possible to say that people’s wish is reflected in the elected council. In fact, one of the arguments in favour of PRS is this possible flaw of the FPPS. Hence, the proposed 30 per cent maxima for PRS representation may not be adequate to overcome the above mentioned flaw of the FPPS. So, I suggest the government to reconsider increasing the proposed 30 maxima to 40 per cent.

The third amendment I propose deals with women representation. When we look at the figures of women representation in elected bodies, Sri Lanka is far behind all the major countries in South Asia. Also there is no strong social movement like in India to campaign for an increased women representation. The Colombo-based women organisations funded by foreign donors might have spent millions of rupees on women empowerment but with marginal or negligible results. These organisations even do not disseminate information as to what is actually happening in the neighbouring countries with regard to women representation in elected bodies. Only very few local organisations are engaged in work that is commendable. However, many of them do some kind of contract work for donor related Colombo organisations. One of the major flaws of the proposed bill is it lumps together women and youth without any justifiable reason. It shows not only lack of concerns for women rights but also ignorance of the social landscape. Sri Lanka should take strong and quick action to remedy the existing male dominance in elected bodies from the Parliament to the local government bodies. In my opinion, Sri Lanka needs to follow India and make genuine attempt to enact women reservation bill as a part of the constitution. In order to improve the proposed local government election bill, the mandatory requirement of nomination lists should be increased to minimum 30 per cent. It is sad that women Parliamentarians belonging to two major parties have agreed to demand a10 per cent quota. We expect more active intervention on this matter transcending partisan politics from women MPs like Rosy Senanayake and Malini Fonseka. They should not miss this opportunity.

The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. He ca be reached at sumane_l@yahoo.com Tell a Friend

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