Whatever platform you are reading this on, Newspaper, Computer, Tablet or Smartphone raise your head and look around you because one of the biggest electoral exercises in the history of this country is happening around you.
Some 70,000 people are vying for the 8,356 Local Government Council seats up for elections in 341 Local Government bodies, an unprecedented exercise on our sunny island.
The campaign begins in earnest this week, but the usual sound and fury of a South Asian style election may not be on display.
There will be fewer posters, but more door-to-door canvassing, but only 10 people or less can come around to tout their line.
This is all because of the new laws enacted by the Yahapalana Government and passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Under the new law, 60 per cent of the seats on all councils will be filled through the ward system where the councillors will be elected through the first-past-the-post system and the rest by Proportional Representation.
There also has to be a minimum of a quarter of candidates who are women.
The idea of the change from a simple PR to this ‘hybrid’ method was to encourage locally popular leaders to get elected and therefore, hopefully, infuse our corrupt and inept political system with fresh blood, made up of truly local leaders accountable directly to voters and not chosen by Central party Mandarins.
Rohana Hettiarachchie, Director of the watchdog People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) and a member of the March 12 Group told Ceylon Today that it looks as if that’s not going to happen.
According to the rules, you can cast your vote for the party or independent group of your choice and whoever is the candidate will get elected from the Ward and it will also get counted in the PR.This raises an interesting conundrum.
If you really like the lad or lass contesting for your Ward and want to vote for him or her, you may inadvertently send into Council someone else in the party whom you detest because he or she appears on the Party list.
For instance, in the contest for the Akuressa Pradeshiya Sabha, wife of the former Chairman Saruwa Liyanage Sunil is among the candidates from the United People’s Freedom Alliance. Sunil is not contesting and the wife, Mangalika, is clearly a proxy, as her husband’s face appears on her posters.
Sunil is currently under trial in the Colombo High Court for allegedly sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl in mid-2012.
Twitter exploded with anger and frustration when users posted Mangalika’s poster on-line. One Twitter user who calls himself Red John with the Twitter handle @ramitha summed up the dilemma facing voters.
“As an example, Akuressa Ward SLFP voters got two choices either vote or don’t vote. If they vote, it means that the wife of Saruwa Liyanage Sunil, who allegedly threw a party to celebrate raping 100 virgins, will win. #Haw? @MaithripalaS Who given the nominations? Not us right?”
Hettiarachchie and his group which has campaigned to keep criminals out of politics says he is “concerned that the practice of nominating people with criminal allegations is still continuing. One candidate was reportedly arrested by Police while he was allegedly in the act of distilling Kasippu (Moonshine).”
Unfortunately such a person can be a community leader in our land. Criminal as he may be, this person will very often be the one coming forth to spend on a poor person’s funeral in the village, or provide children with school books because he has the tax-free income to do so.
PAFFREL is “investigating more than 50 claims by members of the public against candidates with allegations of criminality against them. I blame the leadership of all the parties, particularly the local Organizers for this phenomenon. I know of cases where party supporters have approached the senior party leadership warning against nominating certain candidates, but no notice has been taken,” Hettiarachchie says.
Professor Desmond Mallikarachchi, Philosopher and political commentator told Ceylon Today that this is why people ‘who have raped foreigners and murdered their partners’ have been among candidates and elected to office.
The March12 group has handed over a list of names of candidates against whom they have received complaints of criminality to the Police Chief for investigation and IGP Pujith Jayasundera has advised activists against releasing their names to the Media.
However, they will issue a warning against voting for criminal elements closer to the elections Hettiarachchie says and also hand out ‘report cards’ for each candidate which voters can fill out and share. The hope is that it will create greater awareness among voters about criminal elements entering politics.
Wave of public revulsion
“To really clean things up we need a wave of public revulsion which will reject all the candidates with criminal records and electors who will vote against parties that nominate criminals,” he says.
Another major fault that lies in our Local Government politics is that they have taken on a national nature, meaning that we are not voting on local Parish pump issues but matters that should concern Parliament.
Hettiarachchie says the Joint Opposition has turned the election into a referendum on the Yahapalana Government’s performance.
“This is most unfortunate,” he says.
Mallikarachchi agrees. He believes party politics should be taken out of Local Government. The professor who has lived in the West says in England “you will not see posters of Teresa May and Tony Blair out at the Municipal elections. In Sri Lanka, even in Bintenne the posters have Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe everywhere. They should be having the picture of Uruwarige Vanniyalaththo, but instead they have these national leaders who had themselves photographed after going to the Beauty Parlour.”
But he also strikes a serious note. “When the national parties select candidates and canvass on national issues which should be debated in Parliament, you take away the democratic right of the citizen to select his local representative and have his immediate needs such as road repairs and garbage collection attended to.”
Hettiarachchie agrees. This election should be about local issues but it has been hijacked and “turned into a referendum about who is most popular, Rajapaksa, Sirisena or Wickremesinghe.”
Most unfortunate indeed and it also remains a confusing jumble of candidates who are crossing party lines constantly.
Mallikarachchi says Sri Lankan voters are “wondering what sort of politicians we have. Are they Frogs, Monkeys or Bats, for they are constantly leaping hither and thither. At least the Bats return to their home trees in the morning, but these people don’t.”
So as Yoda would intone, bewildered, disillusioned and put off we are, but we have the vote and we must use it come 10 February.