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Civil Society Must Take Over Local Governments

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So far in human history, the State controlled the society. The task is for the society to control the State.’ – Karl Marx

As an exemplary gesture in 2006, a former Senior Additional Solicitor General, Srinath Perera, contested a local government council (Boralesgamuwa Urban Council) believing that ‘the lack of committed, decent and capable people coming forward’ was one of the factors for the deterioration of the local government system. Giving an interview on his extraordinary decision to the ‘Sunday Island’ (26 March 2006) he said:

“I believe that the overall system [i.e. free education] has allowed me to achieve what I have achieved and I felt a need to give back something in return before I die. I am also aware that there are very few educated people who are willing to enter the fray and for very good reasons too. On the other hand a lot can be done if committed, decent and capable people come forward, especially in local authorities.”

His example was an isolated incident which was not emulated or continued thereafter. Instead we have seen rapists, killers, thugs and extortionists getting hold of the power in many local councils with the support of major political parties or party leaders in order to keep their power bases at local and grassroots levels intact. This is a vicious link that needs to be broken.


The importance of the local government system doesn’t need to be overemphasized. It is self- evident. The importance is not only for the democratic pyramid, with 336 local councils at the bottom, but also for economic development and social welfare. The system has ancient inspirational roots in the ‘Gam-Sabha’ system, modernized and/or substituted during the British period. It is less recognized that the people in the country first learnt about the value of the franchise or the representative democracy through the local government system, however limited, well before the universal franchise was introduced for the State Council in 1931.

Local governments are the public/state institutions closest to the people and their day to day as well as development needs from garbage collection to building approvals through health, sanitation, local roads and environmental protection. When the local government system was reformed in 1987, ‘community development’ was introduced as a major function also allowing the local councils to get involved in ‘enterprises’ in partnership with the private sector (PPP).

The tasks of the local government institutions have evolved from purely supplying ‘utility services’ to at least promoting ‘social-development,’ although these have not been undertaken in the past, during the dark-days. It is a mindboggling question whether many of our local councillors, former and hoping to contest again have any notion of these important tasks! The country’s civil war undoubtedly was a disruptive factor and also an easy excuse. The local government areas also can be considered as economic units or ‘developmental zones.’ When properly coordinated with the provincial councils and the central government agencies i.e. the Divisional Secretariats, these councils or institutions can potentially deliver a yeoman service for economic and social development.

The creation of ‘One Stop’ shops or offices to supply all the services of the local government, provincial councils and the central government in one vicinity could be the most beneficial for the people. This is about the future and not necessarily the present.

Urgent Need

The pressing need however at present is the holding of the much delayed elections for the local government councils, eliminating the mess created by the last government, and also the present one, in the electoral system. As the new constitution making hopefully is going to look at the electoral system afresh, it is best to conduct the local council elections under the old PR system, unfortunately with its integral defects. If the government is wise, it can avoid some of the glaring defects quickly or allow the Elections Commission and the Police to enforce the election laws strictly.

The Minister’s claim that there is ‘no old system left’ is only rhetoric and not correct. What is absent is a ‘new system.’ The available ‘bits and pieces’ in the form of the 2012 Amendment, the 2015 Delimitation Report and even the 2016 Amendment are highly defective and contradictory.

The representative government is not about the numbers or the quantity, but about the quality. What the haphazard reforms have done is to inflate the numbers without much sense. The 2012 delimitation committee has carved out 4,833 wards to elect 5,092 members while the previous number was 4,486. When the 30 percent PR component is added it will be 6,619; and with the 25 percent women representation, the total will be 8,274. This is an increase of the number of councillors by 3,788; equivalent to 85 percent increase. While there is no direct need to increase the number of representatives according to the population growth, this increase is more than the double of the population growth (40%) since 1987 when the PR system was introduced.
There are many other legal ambiguities preventing the elections other than the mess in the half-baked electoral system. The Election Commission has requested the government to rectify them, but unfortunately without any progress. This is another reason why the elections should be held under the ‘old’ PR system. By enacting a brief amendment to the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance to revoke the past amendments since 2012, this could simply be done. In addition, if a clear limit to election expenditure and a strict prohibition of election violence could be imposed, these can be implemented by the Elections Commission and the Police.

Over Politicization

One of the major problems of the local government system is over politicization. This is also linked to corruption, mismanagement, abuse and inefficiency. Whatever the local councillors do are usually defended by the party hierarchies at the top. This is normally the case when the councillors are aligned with the ruling party. Others may lie low until they get the opportunity, or otherwise they usually crossover.

There is another aspect to over politicization. That is the councillors’ unwarranted interference in local government administration. The tasks of the councillors are to represent people, debate policy, approve budgets, oversee administration, question when the administrators’ make mistakes or slack in duty, and make proposals for new initiatives. Their task is not to interfere in administration.

There is a pressing need in improving quality and the management aspects of local government. This can best be done by adopting and efficiently implementing ‘management or business excellence frameworks.’ These are not unknown to Sri Lanka, particularly in the private sector, whether it be Malcolm Baldridge (American), European Model (EFQM) or the Australian Framework (ABEF). Sri Lanka possibly can develop its own framework/s. All these to happen, there should be a breakthrough at the next elections.

There is no much point in having big party competitions in local councils or for council elections. Much worse is when competitions are conducted purely on national issues. The functions of the local government councils are well defined and limited as explained before. If there is any connection between the national issues and the local ones, that is about the connection between macro policies and micro application. The local elections or competitions should be primarily on local issues, policies and development plans, of course within a national (as well as a global) perspective.

The local elections should not be considered a mere barometer of popularity of national parties i.e. the ruling party verses the opposition. It might not be possible to change this mind-set overnight, but there should be efforts to do so. If the major parties care for democracy in the country, they should allow the local or district party organizations to function properly without controlling them from Colombo or Jaffna. This is relevant not only for the UNP and the SLFP, but also for the parties like the TNA. The need for devolution or decentralization is not only for the state structures, but also for party organizations.

Why Civil Society?

The people however cannot wait until the corrupt political parties or politicians get reorganized. It might never happen. That is why the civil society should take over.

It was Karl Marx who once said ‘so far in human history, the State controlled the society. The task is for the society to control the State.’ This is about democratic transformation and this could begin from the bottom up, through the local government system. Society in general means a larger entity. The most conscious or the organized section is called the civil society. That is why we talk about the role of the ‘civil society’ than the society in general in meeting this task in practical terms.

In the present day politics and the representative democracy, there is a contradiction between the state and the civil society. This has been emphasized equally by the socialist as well as the liberal thinkers. This contradiction is also evident between the ‘political society’ and the civil society. By ‘political society’ here we mean mainly the status quo or conventional political parties.

This contradiction is usually enhanced after an election. Once they get elected, it is the natural tendency of the leaders or the so-called people’s representatives to get alienated or distanced themselves from the people and people’s aspirations. The reasons are due to their newly acquired closeness to ‘power and money.’ This is apart from wilful treachery to acquire both. This has become abundantly clear after the two democratic elections (did we say ‘revolutions’?) last year.

The resolution or mediation of this contradiction should come from the civil society. This is part of the democratic cause. Awareness, vigilance, exposure, pressure and defiance are some of the ways. There are some advantages in doing so in modern times due to advances in information technology, free media and the growing awareness and resolve against injustices, corruption and power abuse. The surest way however is direct intervention. The direct intervention by the civil society.


What I am concluding simply is for the organized civil society or the civil society organizations to take over the local governments. My appeal is for the civil society organizations – of women, youth, professionals, academics, media, artists, trade unions, small businesses, NGOs, citizens and seniors – to contest the local government elections in coordination, with commitment and discipline, and to defeat the UNP and the SLFP. If the SLFP (UPFA), the UNP and the TNA are committed to democracy and good governance, they should allow the civil society organizations to take over LG’s at least in certain areas on an experimental basis.

It should also be emphasised that if the civil society organizations fail to coordinate themselves, eschew any conflicts, become committed and disciplined, and most importantly fail to select the correct candidates, the result might be worse than the existing political parties.

Happy Sinhala-Tamil New Year!

By Laksiri Fernando

- Melani

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