A good but useless gift from colonial past

COME Thursday, Sri Lankans will face another election — the fourth in the past three years. We had a parliamentary election followed by a provincial council election in 2004, a Presidential election in November 2005 and this week we will be voting to elect councillors to our local government bodies.

By Ameen Izzadeen

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Published: Tue 28 Mar 2006, 9:42 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:36 PM

Every time a countrywide election is held, it costs the public nearly Rs1 billion ($10 million) — big money for a poor developing country like Sri Lanka. But this is the price we must pay to keep democracy alive. We have a proud and long history of local government system based on the British model. Some of our councils such as the municipal councils of Colombo and Kandy date back to the mid 19th century.

Too many elections in so short a period have obviously led to voter apathy. But as usual, the candidates are resorting to every dirty trick, including violence, to win the election at any cost. The rivalry operates at both inter-party and intra-party levels.

Elections in Sri Lanka are usually and largely a contest between two parties or two major alliances. But this week’s elections are a multi-party contest with the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the ultranationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya led by Buddhist monks going it alone and attacking not only their bete noire, the United National Party of Ranil Wickremesinghe, but also the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of President Mahinda Rajapakse, whom they backed in the November presidential election.

Thursday’s contest is a battle in which every party attacks every other party in the fray. It reminds me of a special type of American wrestling match where about a dozen wrestlers get into the ring and every wrestler fights every other in the ring till everyone except the winner is thrown out of the ring.

At the beginning of the mini-poll campaign, the rivalry among parties that back President Rajapakse’s administration was friendly. But as the poll day nears and the battle heats up, the rivalry is turning increasingly hostile. The JVP lambastes not only the UNP, which controls a majority of the local government councils, but also the SLFP, the party which it backed in the presidential poll. The JVP has complained that much of the poll violence is targeted at its members and its complaints are largely against the SLFP. The feedback President Rajapakse receives from intelligence units has indicated that the JVP is gaining at the expense of the SLFP in many areas. This has prompted the SLFP leadership to reinvigorate its campaign, for it considers a defeat at the hands of the JVP as a humiliating blow in politics.

The ultimate beneficiary of this growing hostility between the JVP and the SLFP is the UNP, which is expected to control most of the councils as the party with the highest number of votes takes control of the council.

But for us voters, what is important is the development of our localities. The local councils are responsible for our roads, drains, lighting systems, collection of garbage, public toilets, public libraries, parks and other services related to health and public utility. Currently, there is little to cheer up the voters. Corruption, the lack of planning and inadequacy of funds are some of the factors that prevent smooth functioning of the local government system.

Many experts have called for reforms of the system to make the councils more meaningful to the people at local level. But the central government, which prefers to carry out its policies and programmes through its administrative apparatus rather than the local councils, has not taken the academic studies and research projects seriously. As a result, the local councils remain under-utilised and cash-strapped. While 70 per cent of its limited revenues are spent on administrative costs, they often depend on the central government for funds for projects.

The performance of the council to which I pay my taxes in microcosm reflects the overall picture. It took me more than a hundred telephone calls and scores of visits to the council and the residence of the council chairman over three years to get my road repaired. One of the reasons for the delay: There was no money. Even the slipshod repair job was done only after the local elections were announced. Before the introduction of the Proportional Representation system, the elections to the councils, whose decisions and performance affect the lives of people at personal and day-to-day level, were held under the first-past-the-post system and we knew who represented our locality or the ward. But now we do not know who our local councillor is because we vote for a list of candidates. When we have a problem, we do not know whom to approach.

Read the letters-to-the-editor pages of Lankan papers or watch prime time television news and you would find people complaining about garbage mountains, unlit streets, potholed roads, mosquito-breeding clogged-up drains and unhygienic markets and eating houses. But the media spotlight seldom brings results in Sri Lanka.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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