A couple of weeks back I wrote about the pernicious impact of our current electoral system on female representation in political bodies. The last week has convinced me more than ever that this system is the root of many of the evils that beset us, and that inhibit good governance.

An obvious example of this was an article that referred to political interference with the police, which obviously also contributes to abuses with regard to human rights. At the same time I should note that I have been very pleasantly impressed in recent months, in my frequent visits to the North to meet with Grama Niladharis and other local representatives at Divisional Secretariat level, by the generally positive impressions of the police. This was not the case a couple of years back but, particularly after the instruction issued recently by the IGP that there should be one or two policemen attached to every Grama Sevaka Division, levels of consultation and collaboration seem to have improved. By and large there seems to be much greater confidence than previously, and if there were more concerted efforts to ensure that at least half the policemen in the North spoke Tamil, I suspect we would have very few social or civil problems in the area that could not be readily resolved.

One reason for this, I believe, is the relative absence of political pressure. Whereas in the rest of the country there are a host of politicians belonging at various levels to the ruling party, in the North these are far fewer. I should note too that the TNA, in a stroke of genius that government would have done well to emulate, generally chose as its chief candidate for local elections distinguished persons such as retired school principals, who have worked well with government officials. Senior citizens as those I have come across have been, they are not particularly interested in being elected again, and are therefore able to adopt a more balanced approach than politicians anxious for popularity.

I do not mean by this to denigrate politicians able to become popular, for that after all is the stuff of politics, and people like me, who have failed to win election to anything since student days (like many of those who were and are student radicals), must respect those more successful than us. But when politicians have to make themselves popular over a large geographical area, their efforts are often neither sensible nor constructive. And since, on our present electoral system, they are competing for popularity with members of their own party, the consequence is enormous pressure on government officials so that they and their resources are co-opted into ongoing election campaigns for everyone.

For officials to fulfil conflicting claims is an impossible task. They cannot concentrate on developing coherent programmes and carrying them out systematically, for they have to assist with a 1001 programmes for what seems a similar number of people, namely all members of the relevant Pradeshiya Sabhas, as well as all those elected from the District to Provincial Councils as well as to Parliament. And though technically responsibility for different geographical areas is divided up, when you need preferential votes from all over, you cannot ignore the many requests that come from possible voters.

Many of the officials I met made it clear that their situation was not an easy one. I was trying to set up more systematic methods of consultation, but I was often told that, even if local consultation led to certain proposals, these were often countermanded by political imperatives. In some places I heard that politicians wanted to allocate duties to the new Graduate recruits, whereas one would have expected them to be used to fill in gaps which the Divisional Secretary would know about rather than a politician with different concerns. As a result positions that should be filled, in particular for the range of social service officials who should develop coherent protection systems in coordination with the Grama Niladharis and the Police, will remain vacant, and the graduates used for political purposes. Some of these may benefit the people, but we will not get the institutionalization that is essential for sustainable development.

The system also leads to financial deprivation. Given the need to spend enormous amounts on elections, so as to compete against all others on one’s own party list, as well as the entire opposition, obviously those elected to office will seek to recoup what was spent and lay up resources for the future. Unfortunately they have access to funding used over a wide catchment area. Previously, those elected to any area who were scrupulously honest could ensure that funds intended to benefit the people they served could be dedicated to that purpose, but now their restraint can be taken advantage of by others. And, sadly, since there is no clear allocation of responsibility, uncertainty develops about what has been done, and the many honest politicians will also suffer in public perceptions.

The present system encourages neither responsibility nor accountability. The cut and thrust it entails, as I have discussed previously, makes it difficult for women to participate in it, and thus even those who are willing to try find themselves at a disadvantage, as the statistics of those nominated and elected make clear. But the problem has wider ramifications, as the necessity for divided loyalties on the part of officials makes clear. Loyalty to the people is what should be expected and, while one can also understand loyalty to the particular politician the people have chosen, when one has to serve several masters, none of whom has a clear mandate for the people one should be serving, there must necessarily be chaos.

Daily News 23 July 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/07/23/fea05.asp