Power to the people | Daily News

Power to the people

D-day is here, with the Local Government polls finally seeing the light of day today after a delay caused by the delimitation exercise. It was a justifiable delay, because demographics and needs of the people in various districts have changed over the last few decades and a redrawing of the electoral map was in order.

Nearly 15.7 million voters are eligible to vote at 13,000 polling centres in today’s election, which is being contested by a record 57,000 candidates from political parties and independent groups. They will be vying for nearly 8,000 councillor posts in 341 local bodies islandwide. Over 175,000 public servants and 65,000 Police personnel (both groups who have already cast their votes) will be deployed for election duties. The results are likely to be announced after midnight today.

This Local Poll is significant in many ways. It is the first election being held islandwide after the delimitation process, but even more importantly it is the first election being held under the new mixed electoral system. It is a mix of the First-Past-the-Post and the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The new “Mixed Member Proportional” (MMP) system is said to be much more practical and fairer by all candidates.

The ending of the PR system in the form that we knew is a major victory for all Sri Lankans. It was one of the biggest negative points about our electoral process. The PR system, with its “Manape” or preference vote made elections a minefield, with many candidates spending millions of rupees on promoting their image and intimidating rival candidates in their own party, leave alone other candidates. Only those who could afford to splash millions could campaign in an entire district, after all.

At this election, however, candidates will be elected from “wards”, which is perhaps the smallest governing unit in the country, so the question of engaging in propaganda in an entire distract does not arise. Hence, campaign costs can be really low and political rivalries too can be kept to a minimum. Going forward, this system will be adapted to national-level elections as well.

The other most important aspect of this election is that all political parties and independent groups have to allocate 25 percent of their nominations to women candidates. It is rather unfortunate that the authorities had to bring in laws to do so, whereas it should have been voluntary effort on the part of political parties. This should have been dome sometime back, but even at this late stage, the correct step has been taken. The participation of women in local governance is at an abysmally low 2 percent. This is inexcusable for a country that produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

There are several reasons for this shockingly low figure. Politics in Sri Lanka generally runs in the family and only women who already have a male relative in politics (father, brother, uncle, cousin) usually take the plunge. Moreover, the PR system made campaigning a nightmare thanks to huge costs. Worse, most prospective women politicians have been driven away by the tactics of intimidation of male politicians.

In fact, there were reports that powerful male candidates from several political parties had threatened their own female candidates during the recent election campaign. In fact, certain parties had not even adhered to the 25 percent quota for women, which saw the rejection of their lists in certain areas. This is a damning indictment on the present male-dominated political culture. But the silver lining here is that many professionally qualified, educated women have boldly come forward to contest the elections. This is a good omen for the future and we hope that all parties will voluntarily follow the 25 percent quota at the next Provincial Council and General Elections. However, women themselves must take a pro-active role in voting for women.

The election of more youth and women will lead to positive changes in the villages, which is what this election is all about. Despite the rhetoric of certain politicians, this election will not change the Government – it is about electing honest people’s representatives at town and village level. Youth and women have a greater understanding of the developmental and social needs of their villages. They feel the pulse of the grassroots and understand their problems.

Sri Lanka is a vibrant democracy with periodic elections. An election is a costly affair – this election alone costs Rs.4 billion of public funds. This is by no means a small sum and the public should use this opportunity to exercise their democratic right wisely in order to gain the maximum benefit. Nothing good will happen if voters stay at home, even though voting is not compulsory in our country. It is important to vote because this is an election that empowers your village representatives to work on your behalf. They will be your voice in the country’s governance structure. Voters have a responsibility to send in only the best to the respective councils – as the saying goes, bad lawmakers are elected by good citizens who do not vote. Every vote cast today is a vote for democracy.


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