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Why not extricate LG bodies from party politics?

" What went wrong with the preferential voting system was the corrupt manner in which the system was used. The candidates, instead of presenting themselves and their credentials to the voters in moderate ways, converted the system into an internecine struggle to collect preferential votes."

by Milinda Rajasekera
(April 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Appropriate advice has been given to the new leaders of local bodies by the government and the opposition parties. They have been exhorted to commit themselves to dedicated service avoiding political sins - our politicians are generally prone to - such as abuse of power, misuse of public property, fraud, corruption and extravagance. Both parties have emphasized the need, above all, for maintaining discipline while warning them with appropriate punishment in cases of errant conduct. 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, also urged the UPFA councilors to be exemplary for hard work, honesty and discipline as he addressed them recently at Temple Trees where 424 Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Urban Councils, Mayors and Deputy Mayors of Municipal Councils elected to 212 local government bodies from the UPFA ticket took their oaths. UPFA General Secretary and Minister Susil Premajayantha said the party would not hesitate to take disciplinary action against members who violated party regulations and instructions.

The UNP leaders, on the other hand, advised its 892 councillors at the swearing-in ceremony at ‘Sirikotha’ presided over by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, to work hard to improve the living and economic conditions of the people while maintaining discipline as a matter of high priority. The new councillors pledged themselves to adhering to discipline as required. They have also agreed to declare their assets.

All this is well and good; but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The public will see how honestly these new leaders would adhere to their leaders’ instructions when they settle down to perform their assigned duties. The advice given is all the more important in view of the added powers and greater financial and administrative freedom that they are to get under the proposed Local Government Authorities (Special Provisions) law.

The proposed laws will, no doubt, bring some relief to the people of this country who have experienced the rigours of elections held under the existing election laws. One aspect of the proportional representation system that caused much of the confusion was the preferential voting scheme. This system, though much maligned and discredited, has its positive aspects. It gave the voters an opportunity of making their own choice of persons selected by respective political parties that often are seen deviating from their much-vaunted principles of merit and qualifications ‘Sirikotha’ ‘Sirikotha’ in selecting candidates. The criteria adopted by political parties in selecting candidates could well be gauged from their propensity for picking popular film stars, sportsmen and close relatives of dead or retired politicians. Some of these selected persons often betray their political immaturity and lack of knowledge about intricate political issues. 

What went wrong with the preferential voting system was the corrupt manner in which the system was used. The candidates, instead of presenting themselves and their credentials to the voters in moderate ways, converted the system into an internecine struggle to collect preferential votes. Buildings, walls, electric posts, street name boards and all available public and private places became plastered with pictures of these candidates. In fact, it was the failure on the part of the election department and the police to enforce the law strictly that made matters worse. So now, the baby is also to be thrown out with the bathwater.

However, the present proposal to get back to the ward system has much to its credit. Member of a local body is the politician closest to the voter. As such he has adequate awareness about the problems and needs of the people living in a particular area. The interaction between the member and the voter thus becomes more convenient and fruitful for both parties. In choosing candidates, the political parties, therefore, have to give much consideration to a person’s closeness to the people’s needs and problems. When selections are made this way, the voters would know the calibre of the person they choose to represent them.

In the past Gamsabha days, it was wealthy and respectable persons in a particular area that the political parties selected. The repulsive aspect in those days, however, was the consideration given to a person’s cast, religion and other extraneous matters. Today’s voter, however, does not pay much attention to such matters, but what has emerged in its place as a divisive force now, is the plague of party politics. This system, to a great extent, prevents persons of high calibre from being elected for various positions. However good a person is, he is discarded if he does not belong to the favoured party of the voter. 

Idealistic though it would seem, in the present context of acrimonious party politics, it would be a radical and great step forward if the new law could provide for disentangling local bodies from narrow party politics. The members could then be above party politics in serving the people. Unless such an enlightened system is devised and adopted, even for national politics, the impressive and frequent appeals made by political leaders to join in the task of rebuilding the nation will continue to remain a dream.
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