07 July 2016

Local government elections and the widening democracy deficit

The controversy over the appointment of the Central Bank Governor was almost like an exercise to obtain the answer to the question ‘who’s the boss?’  The then incumbent, whose tenure was marked by matters which discredited the office and dented investor confidence, was defended.  The President himself expressed displeasure and even stated that he wanted the man removed.  Possible replacements were named.   In the end, bruises suffered by the main protagonists notwithstanding, a person of competence and standing was appointed.  As for the who’s-the-boss question, let’s call it a tie if not for anything but for the collective restoration of dignity in the office of the Governor. 

That, however, is not the only question that had to be answered.  Indeed there is a more important question that this Government has been dodging.  No, it’s not the 20th Amendment – an important democratizing measure that is being dragged simply because politicians are loath to conceding advantages currently enjoyed.   

The question that irks and which will probably turn into yet another political crisis has to do with the postponement of Local Government Elections. 

First, let us flag the fundamentals pertaining to manifestos and mandates.  Here’s a term: good governance.  What’s that about?  Well, it’s about things being above board.  In other words, nothing naughty, no hanky-panky.  Straight up and honest.  Transparent.  Accountable.  Here’s another: democracy.  At the core, it’s about representation.  It’s about electing people to office and the elected representing the electors as per their (the voters’) will.  

So what do these things have to do with the Local Government Elections? 

First, the lies.  Their terms have expired and no one knows when fresh elections will be held.  ‘Soon,’ we were told.  ‘Next January,’ we were told.  ‘Before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year,’ we are being told now by the subject minister, Faizer Mustapha.  Most of the defenders had what appeared to be a legitimate defense: delimitation.   The 19th Amendment contained the relevant clause.  However, for it to make sense electoral reform had to happen.  That’s the 20th Amendment.   So what we have is a script that is full of safeguards – not for the people but for those in power.   It’s made to make excuses.    The problem, however, is that the Elections Commission is not buying any of it.

Way back in the early days of the Yahapalana Government, delays in tabling the 20th Amendment was put (once again) to ‘delimitation’.  ‘It cannot be done before the next General Election’ was the excuse trotted out then.  Even back then, the Elections Commissioner said that it would take a couple of months.  He didn’t say ‘we need more than a year’.  And just the other day, with respect to local government bodies, he has said that delimitation is not required in the case of the majority of councils. 

Minister Mustapha came up with another howler when he said that the bodies will continue to function smoothly because he will see to it that they do!  If that's all that is necessary for 'democracy', Mustapha could get President Sirisena to dissolve Parliament and indeed resign as President since he, Mustapha can ensure that there won't be hiccups or humps!
Anyway, what all this means is that everyone who attempts to explain the delay in holding Local Government Elections is guilty of deceit.  Secondly, they are thumbing their noses at the basics of the yahapalana pledge, namely democracy.

Remember, that this is a government that is toying with ideas about devolution that border on if not are happily located in the separatist agenda.  If ‘devolution’ is what is desired then there’s something funny about balking at holding elections at the ‘grassroots’.    

Devolutionists, delusional and otherwise, could ask ‘If you are not serious about local government elections, how can we trust you to deliver at provincial levels?’ 

Representation is fundamental to democracy.  Representation at the local level is a must in any democratic edifice.  This is something that the good governance gurus that this government prefers to listen to will tell them.  It counts.  An ‘F’ in this regard will not give you an overall passing grade in the Democratic Test. 

During the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa, most if not all elections were held in a manner that gave an extra edge to the already considerable advantage of incumbency.    The then Opposition ranted against the deliberate fiddling with election dates and the staggered structure of elections especially for the Provincial Councils.  The whine was picked up by a largely sympathetic ‘international’ community which, one must note, was less interested in democracy than in having friends in power.   However, even a friendly international community would be hard pressed to applaud the antics of this government on this issue. 

Delays, it must be noted, can and usually do backfire.  Sirima Bandaranaike’s two-year extension resulted in an unprecedented electoral debacle.  J.R. Jayewardene’s fraud-ridden referendum held to subvert the notion of proper representation rather than affirm it led to a near-total collapse of all democratic institutions and pushed the country to bloody anarchy.  Mahinda Rajapaksa’s removal of term limits cost him the presidency, it has been argued.  Postponing local government elections, in comparison, may be considered a lesser wrong, but it is nevertheless a wrong.  This is a good-governance regime or one that promised good governance.  It will be and should be held to higher standards simply by invoking its manifesto, the key elements of which were ‘change’ and ‘democracy’. 

Take out representation and you bury the idea of democracy.  The government, and not the Joint Opposition or anyone else, is pulling the rug from under its own feet.   Next up: tripping over one’s own rhetoric and a massive credibility deficit.

This article appeared in the Daily Mirror (July 7, 2016) under the title 'Next up: Local Government Elections'
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene