By Sumaiya Rizvi

The much awaited and spoken about local government elections will be held on March 17. Deputy Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Indika Bandaranaike stated that the elections should be held before March 31, leaving room for the Prime Minister who announced a date outside his authority. Finally the Elections Commissioner, the sole authority, announced that March 17 would be the day to hold the LGE.

Party leaders must stop candidates from abusing state resources
Executive Director of the National Peace Council Dr. Jehan Perera

The abuse of state resources is a recurring problem. It has been noted and criticized by election observers at elections in recent times. The Election Commissioner should be legally empowered to take action, such as giving direction to the Police and Government officials to take action against the miscreance and even disqualifying them from contesting. He also needs to have the personal courage that corresponds to those legal powers. After the abolishment of the 17th amendment by the government, the Elections Commissioner is at a difficult position as he has lost those powers he had under the 17th amendment, since the 17th amendment is overridden by the 18th amendment. What the Elections Commissioner can do now is to give the names of those who are abusing their powers, to the media and they should be named and shamed. But now he has to make requests to the Police to take action and inform the media of those requests he has made. He can also issue guidelines to the media to report fairly and make that known to the public. However if there is to be an actual change in the ground this should be enforced in practice. The party leaders must stop their candidates from abusing state resources.

18th amendment allows Govt. to manipulate election process
Human Rights Lawyer J.C. Weliamuna

The Local Government electoral system was changed but the Government for political reasons chose to hold elections under the old system which was complicated. The situation is that in this electoral system the Elections Commissioner has no power, as he did before. He cannot control the state resources and with the 18th amendment the Government can manipulate the electoral process to a great extent. This is a tough time to have free and fair elections. The Elections Commissioner is in a tight corner. He should have retired. He is there by compulsion since the Election Commission has not been appointed. So it carries on a lot of problems; the police force is subject to the dictation of the Government and therefore there is no chance of independence during elections. Police officers who tried to have free and fair elections were victimized after the elections.

Elections an obstacle in solving flood crisis
Tamil National Alliance MP P. Ariyanethiran

We asked for the elections to be delayed but it wasn’t delayed and after the floods we have only now started to campaign although we feel people are more concerned about getting back to their normal lives than they are interested in elections. The timing of the elections couldn’t have been worse. We want to help people get back to their livelihoods and normalcy not ask them to vote for us before we help them get back on their feet. We want to be able to be of help to them in their hour of need but we see the elections as an obstacle to that. We hope that the people understand the importance of the elections and come out in large numbers and vote. The candidates are facing a tough time in the areas of Ampara and Thirokovil.

The Government decided to hold the elections under the old Proportional Representation system since it would take three months to demarcate the divisional boundaries to hold the elections under the new system. Under the new act, the local government elections were to be held in a combination of First-Past-the-Post and the Proportional Representation systems.

Voter turnout will be important to both the government and the UNP
Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

The local government elections provide us an opportunity to focus on issues of local governance. However, there is the danger that they could be turned into and seen as an indication of popular opinion on national issues. In the current context, voter turnout will be important to both the government and the UNP opposition – in case of the former, the extent to which it retains its hold on popular support and in the case of the latter, the extent to which its core constituency will come out to vote in an expression of confidence in the party’s future. Then the rising cost of living, flooding and the resulting devastation of livelihoods will have a bearing as well.

We have to ensure fulfilment of simple freedoms
Executive Director of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) Keerthi Tennakoon

The situation in the Northern province is that in the area, 33 local authorities in Jaffna, Killinochchi, Vavuniya, Mullaithivu and Mannar are facing sever hardships when compared to other parts of the country. We can clearly identify restrictions to the freedom of expression and movement which is essential in lobbying and campaigning freely with regard to trade unionists, students unions and women’s organizations that choose to be associated with a political party. These freedoms must be ensured but we don’t see that happening. Access to some parts in Mullaithivu, Mannar and Kiliinochchi is a huge problem. This is a local authority election and they have to be supported by the government bodies and not feel threatened and intimidated by them. This trend is disturbing.

People don’t have space to associate with opposition political parties to have pocket meetings or distribute leaflets. There are so many check points and the supporters are pulled up restricting free movement. The media is prohibited to go to certain areas in Mannar, Kilinochci and Mullaithivu. In the same way political parties and civilians are also facing similar difficulties in terms of their movements. We don’t see political activities taking place in the area and people are not taking part in the political and electoral process.

We have to ensure these simple freedoms like freedom of movement, association and expression should be fulfilled. That will be the only way to ensure that people are having the right to exercise their political freedom.

Low turnout likely at elections
PAFFREL Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi

The main problem is that the voter’s interest is very low. The issue with regard to intra-party violence is the second major issue. Basically due to the elections campaign the people within the party destroy posters and cutouts of candidates within their parties. The fight within the party is for the main position of the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha. There is a huge competition amongst candidates. More than 40% of the violence is due to intra-party politics. More than 20 people were injured and hospitalized ,of which 70% of the injured were by intra-party rivalry.

This time the voter turnout will be less than 50%. People are fed up with this electoral system. They should have conducted the LGE’s at all 335 local authorities with the exception of Jaffna, Batticaloa and eight other Pradeshiya Sabha’s that will expire in 2012. There is no valid reason to not hold elections in the rest of the local authorities. But unfortunately they are holding elections at only 301 local authorities.

As a result people are not happy with the system. Normally the turnout at the Local Government elections is low and the normal voting pattern is 55% to 65% voter turnout. At the last LGE it was 54% this time and I predict that it will be less that 50%; somewhere around 45%.

The other issue that is discouraging the people is that they feel they cannot make an impact on governance and major policy making which is at the hands of the Central Government. A majority of the people feel the central government holds a majority of the power and decision making in the local councils can hardly make a difference. As observers we feel the voters should be more concerned at the local level that the parliamentary or presidential election since they can hold their authorities responsible for the development and reconstruction in their area. Most of the parliamentarians are based in Colombo and at Provincial level the people will have to be more concerned of their local authority representatives who will be accessible and approachable to them. Local authorities have the power to fulfill the needs of their public. Therefore these are decisive elections.

In the North and East there are 32 local authority areas that will hold elections for the first time after 15 years. So the respective political parties need to have their own voter education programs on educating the public of each area. Not forgetting the 9000 war IDP’s (not IDP’s of natural disasters) in the Chettikulam camp, during the parliamentary and presidential elections the Elections Commissioner made special arrangement with regard to traveling and special polling centers but he doesn’t have the power to provide the same facilities during this election. Therefore the political parties need to address this issue specifically.

Amended voting system would have minimized inter party rivalry
People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Director-Programs S. Sabanayagam

The 18th Amendment was rushed through with no intellectual and academic debate about it. There was a proposed bill to amend the electoral process of the local authorities but the Government decided to go with the Proportional Representative system. We could have waited and ratified the bill with the necessary adjustments and amendments. This would minimize inter party rivalry. The tension between members of the main parties is building up. The shortcomings of this system are that violence is on the rise and proper representation of the people is marginalized.

Source: The Daily Mirror – 18.02.2011