By Prof. S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe
The local government (LG) election scheduled for coming Saturday is notable for four main reasons. One is the doubling of members to be elected. The second is the introduction of a mixed system that combines wards and a list. The third is the introduction of a women’s quota of 25%. The fourth is the campaign itself, because there is no clear favourite to win the election outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Voters may express strong disapproval of politicians. But come Saturday most will vote. A turnout of around 60% to 70% depending on the local authority can be expected.
Doubling of Members
In the last LG election in 2011 the country elected 4486 members to 335 LG bodies. That is one member for every 4750 of the population. On coming Saturday 15.8 million will be eligible to vote to elect 8356 members to 341 local bodies. That is an increase of 3,870 (86%) that will yield one member for every 2500 in the population.
Some have criticized the increase claiming that it would make local governance more difficult because it would be harder to reach agreement when there are more members. Many point out the “high” cost of maintenance imposed on the taxpayers. A very crude back of the envelope estimate of the cost to the taxpayers of maintaining this number by way of salaries and other perks would be around Rs 3.0 billion. That is about 25 cents out of every Rs. 1000 that the country annually earns or spends. If the members render a good service to the community this is a cheap price to pay. Many may be unaware that a mayor’s current base salary is only Rs 30,000 per month. A deputy mayor is paid Rs 25,000 and an ordinary member Rs 20,000.
The job of member of a local authority is not a fulltime job. But the Mayor is the chief executive and has a full workload. If these official are not paid adequately, voters should not complain if they resort to corrupt practices to earn an adequate income. Or we must accept that only rich people can afford to serve as mayors and elected representatives.
The old proportional representation (PR) system has been replaced with a new mixed system under which 60% of the members are elected from wards based on the first-past-the-post method and the balance 40% from a list under PR.
The ward system may encourage a close link between the elected representative and voter. The ward system also opens the door to candidates with modest means who cannot afford expensive election campaigns. The new system has made provision for multi member wards mainly to help minority ethnic groups to elect one of their own to local bodies.
The new system requires voters to vote for a party contesting the ward and not for the individual candidate. The voter could have been given two votes, one to choose the ward candidate and the other to choose the party for the list. That would have allowed voters to choose “good” people irrespective of party. But the present system is designed mainly to empower the party and not the voter. For example, in the case of multi member wards, the party has the power to pick the candidate from among those that have been nominated by the party for that ward.
Members from the List
Forty percent of the members will be elected under PR from a common pool. For example in the Colombo MC 66 will be elected from wards and 44 from the respective party pools under PR. Each party has to nominate a number equal to the total number of PR slots available plus three under what is called the “Additional List.” The common pool consists of the Additional List plus those who fail to get elected in the ward contest.
The seats under PR are allocated in proportion to the share of the total vote that each party or independent list polls subject to one limitation. For example, if Party A wins 50% of the ward seats with a poll of less than 50% it will be allowed to keep all the ward seats that it has won. But it will not be entitled to any seats from the list under PR. However, if it wins, say, 55% of the vote and wins 50% of the seats it will be entitled to seats from the list but the total percentage of seats that the party gets must not exceed the 55% that it polled. That means, say, Party A that contests Colombo MC wins 45% of the total vote and 35 of the 66 ward seats. If it were allocated 45% (20 seats) of the List seats based on PR it would have a total of 55 seats or 50% of the total number of 110. That is not allowed. The List seats to be given to Party A will be cut back by 5 to 15 so that it will have a total of 55 seats (45.4%) of the Council seats. These 5 seats will be reallocated to smaller parties that poll small shares of the total poll but fail to win ward seats to match their respective poll shares. For example, Party D that, say, comes fourth with 10% of the total vote but no ward seats may get as many as 3, 4 or even 5 seats under this system from the List.
The List also allows parties to choose candidates who for various reasons do not wish to participate in grassroots electoral politics but have the capacity to contribute something useful to the community and city. But it can also be abused to nominate people who are unqualified to serve the community and may not win the support of voters.
Women’s 25% Quota
This probably is the most politically and socially consequential change in the new system, Sri Lanka has stood out in the democratic world for the low level of participation of women in elected office. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 of the World Economic Forum Ranks Sri Lanka 65 from the top out of 144 countries in Women Poltical Empowerment. In respect of female membership in parliament Sri Lanka ranks 138, and for ministerial positions 132, which is very close to the bottom. In that context the 25% quota for women in LG elections and also in future provincial council elections is a major step to get women to participate more actively in Sri Lankan politics.
In the last set of LG bodies only a mere 82 (1.8%) of the 4486 members were female. After the election later this week, out of 8356 elected members a minimum of 2,089 will be women. That is a remarkable 2447% increase. Many also believe that more women in elected office may also help improve the country’s poltical culture and reduce bribery and corruption.
To ensure that there are enough female candidates to fill the 25% quota, a minimum of 10% of the nominations for wards from each party or Independent List contesting this week’s election are women. On the “Additional List” (40% of the seats) a minimum 50% are women. It is very likely that a majority of the PR List seats will go to women in order to meet the 25% quota.
Local vs. National
At the national level, the top party leaders from all four parties on the campaign trail have focused on national issues such as bribery and corruption and national development questions. The former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has tried to make the election a referendum on the government. Both President Maithripala Sirisena as well as the JVP leadership have been using corruption as the main issue to attack their rivals. Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe has become vulnerable on the corruption issue. He has focused on both macro development issues as well as the contribution of his government to local development programs.
Although the media does not cover local issues, there appears to be strong local dynamic at play in this election cycle driven largely by issues that invariably come up in LG elections. This year that trend has been further strengthened by the new ward system that empowers the local voter.
Winners and Losers
In this semi “nationalized” Local Government election everybody wants to know who would win overall. Excluding the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the remaining seven provinces account for about 13.7m (87%) of the total national electorate. Based on available data, especially the voting in the 2015 presidential election and the parliamentary election, we can say that the UNP is strong in the Districts of Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, that account for 3.2m (24%) of the “southern” vote. Based on similar data SLPF that Mahinda Rajapaksa backs is strong in Hambantota, Monaragala, Matara, Ratnapura, and Galle that account for about 3.1m (23%) of the electorate. The UPFA should do well in Sirisena’s home district, Polonnaruwa, but the voter base is only about 300,000 (2.2%). The eight districts not mentioned above are those that may be called “swing” districts. They account for the balance 7.0 million votes outside the north and east.
In some of the swing districts there can be factors particular to that district at work that will make it tilt in favour of one or the other of the parties. For example, Gampaha that has a traditional SLFP base may be more hospitable to both SLPF as well as UPFA. Kurunegala that is 92% Sinhalese-Buddhist is likely to be favorable to SLPF. Districts with significant minority populations such as Badulla (30%), Puttalam (20%) and Matale (20%) may tilt towards the UNP.
Thus the most likely outcome is that no single party would secure a clear victory in a large number of local bodies. Sirisena’s UPFA and the JVP do not have much prospects of coming on top or even coming second. But under the PR system both are likely to gain some seats. It is more likely that the UPFA rather than the JVP would have enough votes to secure a few crucial seats in many local bodies that would give it the power to decide who would form the next admimstration. That suggest that we would have coalition government in local government mimicking the one that already exists in the centre.