Strangling and emasculating Municipal Councils

Of party lists and militarised incorporation


by Kumar David

The talk of corporatizing development and enforcing social control has been around for a while. Historically this is Mussolini talk; in Sri Lanka it is militarization talk. A while ago there were persistent "leaks" from the government that the Colombo Municipality was to be turned into a corporation and who but the jackboot of the military would run the show? I was present, and vehemently protested, when at the Upali Coory commemoration meeting some months ago the JHU’s Champika Ranawaka waxed eloquent on the virtues of a corporatist society, and at about the same time a website reported:

"In a further attack on democratic rights designed to push ahead with pro-investor policies, the Sri Lankan cabinet decided on March 24 to establish a Colombo Metropolitan City Corporation (CMCC), incorporating five elected local councils. The authority will be run by a City Governor, appointed by President Rajapaksa, giving the government greater power over the country’s main urban area. Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, announcing the decision at the weekly press briefing, said a bill to set up the CMCC would soon be presented to parliament. The existing municipal councils for Colombo, Dehiwela-Galkissa and Sri J’pura-Kotte, and urban and regional councils for Kolonnawa and Kotikawatta-Mulleriyawa, would be brought under the authority". (WSWS Website 11 April, 2011).


The Sunday Times on August 21 claimed Basil Rajapaksa told it that: "Legislation to set up an authority to administer five local councils in the Colombo district including three municipalities will be passed and implemented before the end of the year". Wimal Weerawansa echoed the threat at a function less than two weeks ago on 20 September. The goose is being cooked; the government is hell-bent on the Mussolinification of urban life and stamping the military jackboot on the neck of the metropolis’s population.

In the run up to next week’s elections every top leader of the UPFA is dripping lies, like a reeking toilet, about the compulsory eviction of the poor and the lower middle class from Colombo; the turn of the middle-middle class will come soon. "No one will be forced out" say precisely those who have thus far expelled 1,500 in Wanathamulla and broken into and smashed homes in Mews Street many of whom held legal title. Maybe it was little green men from Mars, the same who drive white vans by day and coat themselves with grease by night, who did it!

The government lies that it has no plans to evict residents of Colombo but Defense Ministry henchman, the Urban Development Authority, says according to the Sunday Times of November 21 last year, that it "has drawn up a mass eviction plan" and comments that residents in Slave Island, most holding valid deeds and living in the area for more than five decades, have been told to prepare to be kicked out. The UDA Director General snorts: "We cannot allow them to live in the city any longer" and claims to have identified vacant plots in Homagama, Kalutara and Gampaha to transplant the urban poor to. The saying is "none are so blind as those who have eyes but cannot see. Are Colombo’s voters so gullible as to give the UPFA a mandate? They have been amply forewarned.


The electoral system that the government has decided to retain for the municipal elections is absurd; Colombo is the most grotesque case of all. The CMC list will be an ache for the poor Elections Department to prepare, a nightmare for voters to mark, and a horror for the counting staff to enumerate. A perfectly good, but needing some amendments, new system was working its way through parliament but the government decided to shelve it and stay with the current monster because it thought it could gain partisan advantage. (Nothing the UPFA does is motivated by anything besides kick-backs and benefits for itself).

In Colombo there will be, if I recall correctly, eight slates (lists), each of which will contain 58 names (in three languages); hence the "ballot paper" will either be some meters long or a book as thick as a bible. Imagine wading through, ankle deep in paper twisted round your sandals, finding the party symbol first and then locating three preferred candidates on the near 500 name long roll-call! Finally, the poor sods in the counting centre will suffer from apoplexy in chaos designed to encourage fraud –or maybe that was just what was in the mind of, who else but the ruling party, in setting up this whole charade.

Breaking the jinx

If voters are wise they will break the jinx. Though the option I am proposing is not available at the individual level, at the national collective level the electorate should ignore party lists and pick the best individual. It’s true you can’t vote across party lines within a given municipal council; but one should strive to persuade the electorate at large to vote as follows. Support Candidate-A in the list of Party-PQR in, say Colombo, and Candidate-B on the list of party-XYZ in say Kotte, and so on. The necessary condition is that A, B, etc are excellent choices, and of course let PQR, XYZ etc go to hell.

This is no abstract thesis; it’s the other way round. I arrived at the formula when faced with a bunch of concrete contradictions. Quite truthfully, Wimal Rodrigo is by far the best candidate from all the lists of all of the parties in Colombo. In Dehiwala-Galkissa, Silan Kadirgamar is similarly a superlative choice (though admittedly Bahu and Thiru are also good choices in D-G). Then take Kotte; Percy Wickremasekara is the best man there. Now here’s the rub; Wimal is on the pro-government UPFA list (betel leaf), Silan is contesting on Mano Ganesan’s DPP list (ladder) and Percy comes under the LSSP key symbol (in Kotte the LSSP and UPFA clashed over nominations and went their own ways).

This assessment is not my solo opinion. Every person whose judgement and maturity I value who I have discussed the elections with has endorsed this evaluation of the aforesaid individuals. After that, all began to bemoan the party list system and expressed regret that were they to remain loyal to party symbols, then in two of these three cases, the ‘collective everyone’ would have to vote against two of the best candidate. It soon became clear to us that people must defy the party list and endorse the best candidate. Equally important, voters must treat their three preferences as one entity and cast all three for the same high quality candidate.

Let me explain by personalising it since the suggestion may seem a little confusing. If I were a CMC voter (actually my home was in Colombo from 1955 to 1977) I would have to hold my nose at the thought of voting for Rajapaksa’s UPFA, but my way out would be to give all three preference votes to Wimal Rodrigo so that none of the benefit goes astray to anyone else in the UPFA. When you sup with the devil, make sure the spoon is long enough. In D-G where I live, the decision is easier; I will support Silan Kadirgamar without such qualms (Bahu and Thiru, also contesting under the ladder, are also good candidates).

Restating the principle

I will say no more about individuals because the purpose of this piece is to canvass for a principle not persons. The principle is that lists are a monstrous encumbrance that must be defied. The media, democracy activists, and NGOs, should, on a nation wide scale campaign for people to ignore lists and vote for the best man or women, whatever the stable he/she come from; candidates have no choice but to preset themselves on a list. I have found that the principle, once explained, quickly gets people’s attention. The idea is catching on and if widely accepted three victories can be secured.

First, the municipal councils will gain exemplary councillors; incorruptible, politically wise and genuine about the welfare of city denizens. Second, those who manufacture these electoral poxes can be awarded a kick in the rump. The public can show what it thinks of their list system. Thirdly, political maturity and democracy will be a winner.

An outfit called Social Indicator carried out a large random sampling probe of what people think of their elected local government councillors. A full 68% of the public described councillors as a bunch of outright rogues, or as "corrupt to some extent". (You know these sample surveys; I don’t know how you can be corrupt to some extent, but not to another extent!). People everywhere are plain spoken about how these politicos have enriched themselves, made a fast buck on contracts, pocketed funds and endangered public health. Fr J.C. Peries has made an impassioned plea "This time let our choice be moral" in the Island of 22 September; he is right but how to do it in practice in the thick of this witches brew of lists? The only way out for now, that is till the system is reformed to a constituency based one, is to adopt the tactic outlined in this article and cast all three votes for the best candidate without concern for which list he/she is on.

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