Spending on elections: Where does money come from?

| by Sumanasiri Liyanage

(October 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) No, I am not writing on the forthcoming local government elections, though the capturing power of Colombo, Kandy and Dehiwala-Ratmalana municipal councils is crucial for both the United National Party (UNP) and the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance UPFA). My objective of writing this note is different as it intends to address some fundamental issues of local governance. The Acts governing local government provide multiple democratic spaces, the use of which may ensure that the representatives of local governments and their decisions can be subject to people’s observance. Hence, the issue of accountability and transparency would prevail at least as a theoretical possibility. The same ordinances enacted a long time ago still prevail, but local government institutions have been reduced now to mere appendages of the government. This is primarily an outcome of the constitutional provisions that have been superimposed on them since 1978. Today, local government elections are conducted not over local issues, the addressing of which is supposed to be the central functions of the local governments but on national issues. As we witness today in the case of Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) polls campaign, even issues directly related to Colombo City were highlighted as part of national policy. The notion that the issues which come under the purview of the CMC cannot be fully and adequately addressed if a party that is not a constituent ally of the governing coalition is elected is in real sense a negation of the local level democracy. It implies a move to intimidate the voters into submitting themselves to the results of the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections held until 2016, when elections are due again. What does this really mean? It means there is no independent existence for local government bodies! This downgrading of local government councils, in my opinion, is a result of three main developments in the post-1978 period.

First change has been the introduction of proportional representation system (PRS) as an electoral modality. The main argument in favour of the introduction of the proportional representation system was that it would strengthen the two-party system. Subsequently, an ethnic dimension was also added to bolster that argument. PRS has its own merits, but it has, in Sri Lanka, created many negative results as it has resulted in distancing the elected from electors. Hence, the local organic leaders were replaced by or subordinated to powerful figures who could spend enormous amounts of money on their election campaigns. PAFREL has announced that in CMC polls, an average candidate spends around Rs. 1,000,000 a day. As we are aware, the so-called average is an incorrect indicator. For example, Wimal Rodrigo, the UPFA candidate from Kassapa Watta, Thimbirigasyaya has no money to spend in the election campaign. Rodrigo has been an organic leader in the area for nearly 40 years and organised committees in defending Tamils in the area during 1983 pogrom. He has been always in the forefront raising local issues. Under PRS, such organic local leaders have to conduct a low-cost intensive campaign to have a chance to be elected. PRS has an inherent macro-bias. It favours national against local, distant over near.

Secondly, with the introduction of PRS, local government elections have also become a venue for testing ground for main political parties. Although Dr. Colvin R de Silva may be correct in denouncing independent members as three-headed donkeys in the national Parliament, in local government elections in the past, independent candidates represented non-partisan representation of important local issues. Those organic leaders who were disgruntled with partisan politics were given an opportunity to serve people at local level by contesting as independent candidates or as candidates for small or local political parties. Nowadays, main political parties are desperate to win all the elections including elections to co-operative societies. This has reduced immensely the political choices of the people and as a result today we hear in all representative bodies the same argument and views, no room for multiplicity. On the other hand, when parties select people to contest local government elections, they invariably prefer powerful, rich, males over organic local leaders and women. And our voters have been psychologically conditioned by the system which is now more than 30 years old to such an extent that they tend to prefer rich, powerful and male candidates. So women representation in Sri Lanka has become the lowest in the South Asian region.

As one candidate has recently revealed, party selection committees had begun even to ask for bribes to nominate candidates! Financial contribution to his or her party has been the main criterion for nominating a candidate. Mohamed Mahroof, UPFA candidate for CMC, has recently claimed that he granted Rs. 1000 mn to the UNP leader for two election campaigns in the past. Ironically, it is not reported whether either the Inland Revenue Department or the Bribery Commission has conducted an investigation to find out how Mohamed Mahroof earned such a lot of money. They may have swung into action if an Opposition politician would have made such a confession.

Thirdly, the 1978 constitution has given rise to overly centralised system in which local and provincial legislatures and administrations are subordinated to the central regime. The executive presidential system has made it impossible to change this over-centralised system within the given constitutional framework. This factor has made voters perceive that all should finally flow from the Temple Trees!

All these three factors have transformed the electoral landscape in Sri Lanka where only election that really matters is the presidential election. When its results are announced and executive President is elected, elections automatically get transformed into a game of the powerful, affluent elements who throw big money before polls expecting returns thereafter. Hence system needs a complete overhaul as piecemeal reforms may not produce significant and far-reaching results.

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