Local Government Elections

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

(February 21, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) The UPFA government has, for some unknown reasons, put electoral reforms on hold and decided to hold local government elections under the system. Local Government institutions by virtue of their proximity to the grassroots play a role of great importance in a vibrant democratic polity. However, for the last 40 years or so these bodies have transformed through unwarranted politicisation into appendages of the government. Funds for local government bodies as well as provincial councils are allocated on the basis of the allegiance of their leadership to the government in power. This development has, in fact, generated an argument that the power of the local government bodies should be in the hands of the politicians affiliated to the party/ alliance in power at the centre. This argument gives the impression that the local government bodies are not local level independent representative bodies of the people but administrative appendages of the government at the local level. This is not acceptable and the local bodies in a democratic society should be independent and resources that are due from the government should reach them on time regardless of the political leanings of those at their helm. However, I do not deny the fact that if the people move in the same direction politically, the political will of the people may be reflected in all representative bodies with people electing the same party, especially when the LG polls come in the wake of a major election.

The UPFA argues that since it is in power at all levels of government, people should vote with the UPFA if they are to have their villages, townships etc developed. As I mentioned earlier, this argument is absurd. During the last six years, at all levels of government with a few exceptions the UPFA has been in power. So the best argument that the UPFA can present is what the party/alliance have done for the country in the last six years. How did the UPFA elected members to the local bodies perform in their respective areas? To what extent have they fulfilled the promises given to the electorate during the last elections, both at the centre and at the provincial levels? Has the UPFA demonstrated to the country that it has solid plan for the future? Voters would like to have answers to questions of this nature from the UPFA in the election campaign. On the contrary, what we hear is a different story: "We are in power, if the power is given to another party you will be the losers." The UPFA has to keep in mind that in the absence of by-elections, people would use the local government elections as a space for them to express their protest and resistance against the government and its policies. The government has refused to increase salaries of the public sector by Rs. 2,500 as promised about a year ago at the Presidential election. It has failed to stop the galloping price inflation of wage-goods. It has not shown that it has a sound and rational long-term development plan beyond the absurd neo-liberal ideas of those controlling the economy. The UPFA has failed miserably to find an amicable solution to Tamil national question. So the record is dismal and the war victory is no longer a saleable item.

On the other hand, the UNP, the main opposition party, has also shown that it has failed on all fronts. It has failed to resolve its leadership crisis. If the party can manage to have a new leader, what will be the policy differences? How will the policies of the new leader differ from the policies of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UPFA government? I believe Sajith Premadasa would emerge as a better leader for the UNP, but it should not be limited to differences of personal approach to the issues. His promise to usher in another Premadasa era may be attractive to rural poor, but it may also be frightening to people who value democracy and basic rights. What is his alternative? My assessment is that in spite of these weaknesses of the UNP, it would be able to increase its votes at the local government elections and it may be able to win many local government bodies in Kandy, Ratnapura and Badulla (I do not know other areas). The UNPers at village level are evincing some enthusiasm as they expect a leadership change in the UNP and an alternative to the UPFA.

The third political force, Janata Vimukti Peramuna, has had a consistent record for the last 15 years or so by highlighting issues of national importance. Although its record on the Tamil national question is not acceptable, its position is not anti-Tamil although anti-power-sharing. Its development programme has not gone beyond critiquing those of others and the party has not yet developed a programme that has practical validity in the current situation.

It is interesting to note that although three main political streams have not come out with acceptable programmes, the candidates seem to be very active at the village level. Active in two senses; they are campaigning hard even without programmes. In Sri Lankan elections, this factor has contributed to an increase voter turn-out. At the moment, voters seem to be non-engaging and have not shown a keen interest in the elections and this kind of hard work by candidates may once again crank up enthusiasm, given the polarisation of the electorate at the village level. This may be detrimental to a change as the voters’ habits appear to be rigid. The second aspect is the ugly side of the old electoral system. Candidates are apparently spending enormous amounts of money on electioneering. Posters covering walls, cut outs, and graffiti on walls and rocks are common these days.

Minister Kumar Welgama raised an important issue a couple of days ago. Referring to local government elected members, he said that they were so corrupt and earned money on contracts by building lower standard roads, anicuts and so on. The amount of money they spent at least a rough estimate of the returns that they expect from being a member of local government bodies. This system has generated corrupt, distant local bodies. What is necessary for vibrant democracy has finally become an anti-democratic institution because of these malpractices facilitated by the current election system.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya. He can be reached at sumane_l@yahoo.com

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