Local Government Elections on 10 February will be largest electoral exercise in history Many firsts in LG Polls this year

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By 2018-01-21

By Arjuna Ranawana

Sri Lankan voters go to the polls in two weeks' time to elect representatives to their Local Government bodies which may be a Municipality, Urban Council or Regional Council. The 10 February election will see the largest number ever of Councillors being elected making it the biggest electoral exercise in the history of Sri Lanka.

A total of 341 local authorities are being contested and some 8,356 members will be elected to these councils and an estimated 56,000 candidates will be in the fray. The Elections Commission is yet to release the final number of candidates because the Courts are yet to rule on several councils where lists of nominees were rejected.

There are a number of firsts in this election. This is the first time all the Local Government elections will be conducted on the same day. This is the first time the ballots will be counted at the polling station and not at counting centres. This is also the first time an election will be held under the Mixed Member Proportional system where some members will be elected through the Party List and others through first-past-the-post system. The other innovation is that a quarter of all the Councillors must be women.

Many of these changes have been prompted by a need to change the culture of the Local Government Councils in Sri Lanka. Under the old method, where Councillors were elected entirely through the list submitted by the party, the party mandarins would decide who the candidates would be. That way it was possible for the parties to park their 'muscle' – the thugs – who are an important part of our rotten political culture in these local bodies.

Sri Lanka has had a system of Local Government stretching back over a millennium where Village Councils settled local disputes and took decisions for the greater good of the community. The Councils were dissolved and power vested in the Colonial authorities after British rule was imposed countrywide in the 19th century. But some 40 years later Local Councils were introduced with appointed members and Municipal Councils as we know them were established in 1865 with the Municipal Council of Colombo (1865), Kandy (1865) and Galle (1866) being the first. These Municipal Councils were established with legally delineated Municipal boundaries under the Municipal Council Ordinance of 1865.

Local Government is charged by law to "provide for the comfort, convenience and well-being of the community." Our hope is that the changes that have been brought in for this election will help the Councils to perform this task to the best of their ability.

Reservation for Women Councillors has contentious provisions

The amended law mandates that a certain percentage of Members of the Councils be women.

The law states "not less than twenty five per centum of the total number of members in each local authority shall be women members: provided that, where the number constituting twenty five per centum of the total number of members in a local authority in an integer and fraction, the integer shall be deemed to be the number which shall constitute twenty five per centum for the purpose of this section."

To bring this into effect at least 25 per cent of the candidates nominated by the registered political parties must be women. If this stipulation is not met the Commissioner has the right to reject the nomination papers of that party. The Commissioner also has to specify the number of women candidates who have to be nominated in each council.

But the law also states that it is the Commissioner's Duty to ensure that a quarter of the Members of the Council are women.

Then questions arise as to how the Commission will go about it.

Asoka Obeyesekere, Executive Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka says, "The way it is calculated is not straightforward, the way the law has been built is that it acknowledges that there will be Independent groups and smaller parties and because they have far fewer members in the Local Councils they are exempt from the requirement to have 25 per cent of women among the nominees.

"What it means is that there will be some difficulty when it comes to the calculation and also because people don't understand how the system works, when the results are announced they will feel that these results are unfair. There appear to be logical inconsistencies within the law itself. It will not be easy for the Election Commission to fulfil the statutory obligation to ensure that 25 per cent of the councillors are women."

This is a recipe for trouble because a group which has received fewer votes may get seats on the council just to make up the required number of women in the council.

Asked about this, one election official told Ceylon Today that "it will be like calculating according to the Duckworth-Lewis method," a formula used to calculate the number of overs allocated to a side when a One Day International Cricket match is affected by the weather.

Voting will be a new experience for all

This election will be conducted for the first time in Sri Lanka under what is known as the Mixed Member Proportional Representation method.

This means that 40 per cent of the members will be elected on the Party List and 60 per cent on a Ward-based first-past-the-post system.

Older voters will remember when the local councils were elected entirely on the Ward system. The parties appointed candidates for each Ward which is a geographical area and the person who got the most number of votes became the Member. Later when the Proportional Representation was introduced we voted for the Party and the Members were elected proportionately from that list.
This system combines the two.

The intention is to keep the fairness of the PR system and combine it with candidates who will be chosen from among the people living in the area and hopefully known to voters.

So there is no Preferential Vote for the first time in a Sri Lankan election in decades.

Instead, the ballot paper will contain only the symbols and names of the political parties and all voters need to do is to mark a cross against the Party or Independent Group they support.

This vote will go towards the candidate from the Party or Group contesting the Ward you live in and also towards the percentage it gets that will decide the number elected from the list.

An election without the sound and fury

Normally a Sri Lankan election is marked by ear-splitting noise, poster-wars, rallies and a general carnival-like atmosphere.

But this time it is almost eerily quiet because the Elections Commission and the Police are enforcing the laws strictly.

No posters are allowed unless they are at the party office, rallies are limited and less than 10 persons at a time are allowed to go house-to-house canvassing.

Chairman of the Commission Mahinda Deshapriya has also warned that politicians cannot campaign under the guise of distributing relief goods, aid or opening of roads and other infrastructure works.

He has also encouraged citizens to call in and report criminal conduct by candidates and watchdog groups have already sent in lists of nominees with criminal allegations against them.

The idea is that we have a clean election and elect a new type of politician.

Let's hope that happens.

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