Elections: Sri Lankan style | Daily News

Elections: Sri Lankan style

It has often been said that a national election would be the solution to the current political crisis. It has also been endorsed by legal luminaries, political parties and the academia. Differences, if any, relate only to the timing and nature of the elections only.

This proposition is theoretically valid. Yet how practical is it in the Sri Lankan context?

We have a three-tier system of governance. At the lowest is local governing bodies. Provincial Councils form a middle level governance structure between local government and the central government.

Needless to say, elections at each of these levels cannot be the same in content and objectives, though universal suffrage holds for all. For example, elections to local government bodies – Pradeshiya Sabhas and Urban Councils and Municipal Councils are meant to elect Councils that would look after civil administration within their territories such as collection of taxes, licensing business concerns, sanitation, managing local fairs, and provision of public services such as water supply, electricity, rural roads and lanes etc.

Ideal would be to elect suitable persons, preferably from the area itself who would have an interest in its development. However, our experience is that political party interests and obligations override community interests leading to the election of members with parochial and partisan interests.

Executive presidency

The situation worsened since the introduction of the Executive Presidency for the country. Expression of allegiance to the Executive President or its aspirant became the one and only criteria for voting so much so that at the last Local Government elections voters did not consider the individual merits and demerits of candidates but voted en bloc for those approved by three leaders, considering the vote to be a personal vote for that leader.

The tragic result of it was that some of the Councilors did not know, even the boundaries of the Councils to which they were elected. In 99 cases out of 100 no political party placed a programme of development. Not only did the “Supreme Leader” in whose name the votes were cast was an outsider to the election but even he was nonplussed as to how the Councils should be run.

Thematically the last Local Government election was fought on a single slogan – should the country be saved from a foreign inspired conspiracy or betrayed? The question thus posed naturally drew an “Aye” response from the naïve and unsophisticated electorate which did not rationally consider the actual situation. The anti-incumbent nature and shortcomings of the administration added momentum to the “patriotic” drive.

The hurriedly passed election law elected substantial number of hung Councils and also doubled the number of elected representatives costing an additional fortune from the people’s exchequer.

This also resulted in immoral crossovers of elected representatives and unethical alliances that smell foul. As it stands clear that Local Government elections have failed to solve problems of Local Governance and the Councils remain in the grip of national level leaders of ruling party or Opposition. Mayors or Chairmen of Councils could run them only with the grace of the former. It is the writ of the Central government that runs them.

Elections to the Provincial Councils are long overdue. Major political parties have no inner democracy. They are run as fiefdoms by a supreme leader. The system is corrupt to the core. In some parties there exists a mafia type hierarchy of officials who control the membership. Unless these parties are democratized the party system will be a bane on Local Government.

Most of the Provincial Councils, i.e. the second tier have no elected representatives as their terms of office have elapsed. Elections are therefore both necessary and urgent. However, it would be a repetition of the Local Government election as it too will be conducted under a single slogan as given above. No problem of provincial governance will be placed before the voters.

Corrupt practices

Only beneficiaries would be the Provincial Counsellors who will get experience in carrying forward the same corrupt practices as their mentors in Parliament or their own predecessors.

The system has been in operation for three decades but powers of Provincial Councils remain truncated still according to the wishes of the centre. Since what is given by the left hand is withdrawn by the right hand using the powers of the central executive the Provincial Councils resemble glorified local governance than meaningful devolution of power. With hardly any independent initiatives of their own they remain subordinate entities simply echoing the government agenda. As such they have actually become White Elephants.

The degenerated state of the central legislature – Parliament of Sri Lanka is well known. Recently we witnessed horrific scenes enacted there by “people’s representatives”, which put to shame the worst battles of underworld gangsters.

Our Parliament today has become a talking shop and a soap opera for onlookers. In order to make it capable of enacting sound legislation and formulating policies the civic consciousness of the voters should be enhanced, civil society should be more enlightened and made active in addition to democratizing the political parties, including better representation of the youth and women in their administrative and leading bodies.

It is a moot point whether the present composition of the Parliament would be capable of carrying out any positive reforms. Inaction or the long delay in punishing the MPs who disgraced Parliament by their unruly behaviour causing even destruction of property shows its reluctance to stop misbehaving.

Recently several eminent persons including the Governor of the Central Bank have called for more educated and cultured people’s representatives. Unless the civil society influences on a massive scale and in an organised manner it would remain only a pious wish, a mere dream unfulfilled.

When organised civil society organisations such as the trade unions, professional associations or religious organisations echo the corrupt political leaders and are competing to show their political allegiances more than interests of the public or their members it has provided space for few isolated individuals to claim leadership of civil society with the support of sections of the media. Even the brave among them wish to play a messianic role rather than leading an organised civil society movement.


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