14 December 2017

(Pick)pocketing the Town Hall

Local government elections are typically held immediately after a major election.  What typically happens is that the party winning the latter sweeps the former.  In this sense the forthcoming local government elections are an anomaly.  They are ‘late’.  Very late.  

Numerous excuses were given, among which was the slowness of instituting electoral reform, the length of the delimitation process etc.  Over and above all this, one has to conclude, the regime was wary.  It still is wary.  It appears that this government has concluded that while the delay will come with political costs, a further delay might result in cost-escalation. 

Now that it has been announced, we are in more familiar territory, except for the ‘newness’ of returning to a first-past-the-post system, even in part. Back in the day the identity, track record and general standing of the candidate counted, his or her party also mattered.  It still matters.  

This is why we don’t see much talk about candidates.  It’s mostly about the possible outcome in terms of the major political coalitions, especially considering we are dealing with a double-split here: the yahapalana coalition is split and the SLFP is split as well.  

Analysts will no doubt factor in regime-age, the positives and negatives and their impact, the ‘localness’ of the issue at hand, the flavor of the ‘national’ as per a test of regime-approval, the candidate stature and so on in predicting outcomes.  Outcome preference will no doubt flavor prediction.  There will also be fake ‘opinion polls’ and the inflation or suppression of the results of serious polls.  Then, again in terms of political preferences, the ‘key issues’ will be flagged by one and all.  

In the end the people will decide, their decision based on multiple factors.  We will know, by and by.  Once the results come out, they will be variously read.  Winners will inflate the importance of victory, those who came second best will find one or another reason to celebrate.  In other words, if we take all the readings, we might have to conclude that this election, like all election, only yields winners. 

Let them talk.  Let them brag.  Let us try to understand what local government elections are about.  A recent poster put up by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) gives us an excellent opening.  It was a simple line: "දෙපැත්තෙන්ම කෑව ඇති.  ජවිපෙට ගම දීල බලමු."   (Both sides have ‘eaten’ enough: Let us give the village to the JVP and see)’

‘Eaten’ could mean ‘consume.’  It also could mean ‘messed up’.   The ‘both sides’ probably refers to the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).  The JVP probably took the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Prof G.L. Peiris and identified with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as belonging to the SLFP ‘side’.  

There’s no argument about the messing-up part of the claim.  History however does not give the JVP any bragging rights, for the bloody-mess they’ve been responsible for, in part, and of course the crimes of association, having brought the said ‘sides’ to power and helped them out of power on numerous occasions.

The issue is not about the ‘better party’.  The polite suggestion embedded in the poster was not made by some dispassionate and independent individual and certainly not by the ‘village’.  It is the JVP that is saying ‘let’s try us’ as thought they are not talking about themselves.  That’s politics.  

The issue is about giving and getting (and being ‘eaten,’  consumed or messed up).  It is about who is located where.  Is a ‘village’ or or an urban or municipal council or even a nation something that’s there to be given by the voter to this party or that?  What happens after that ‘giving’?  Where does the giving leave the voter (and the village or town or nation)?  How can the voter give what he/she does not necessarily own or owns only on account of location in a collective?  

If we reflect on these questions we might figure out the problem at hand.  It’s about representation or rather true representation.  

Let us put it another way.  The local government body should be located (politically) in the local(ity).  The exercise, as things stands now, is about stuffing the local or the village into the pocket of the local government body.  The local government body is in effect in the pocket of the particular political party that ends up controlling it.  That’s the voter removed two steps from being represented.  

And what of the political party that ends up owning the local government body and therefore the village and the villager?  Well, the political party is in the pocket of the political aspirations and designs of the party leadership.  Ownership of voter, makes for braggadocio. Ownership of a council makes for a bigger brag, ownership so to speak of a party that owns so many councils and therefore so many locales and locals makes for a much bigger strut.  

Let’s try another approach.  Is the Town Hall in Colombo or is Colombo in the Town Hall (the edifice as proxy for the Colombo Municipal Council)?  Is the party that wins the election in the mayor or is the mayor in the party office?  

Now one might argue that none of this need stop an elected member of any local government body from doing some stuff for the village or town or municipality.  True.  But let us not forget that the original plan (not just of the JVP) is to ‘take the village’.  It is culturally and politically an act of theft that is planned, a wresting away of franchise in the name of democracy, frilled with the rhetoric of representation and delivery.  

At the end of the day, the villager lost the village and the citizen lost the nation.   These were robbed in the name of the villager and the citizen and democracy was the name of the caravan that carried away the loot.  

We need to re-think democracy or shed its lie and go for anarchy if not for anything but to live more honest lives as citizens.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com.