2018 Local Government elections


A National Fight to Capture Power in the Village 

On February 10th 15.8 million will be eligible to vote to elect 8356 members to 341 local bodies. There is a great deal of criticism of Sri Lankan democracy; how elections are conducted, the “waste” of public funds in electing as many as 8356 (one for every 2500 citizens) local government representatives, the corruption of politicians from top to bottom and so on. Many of these may be valid criticisms. Ideally all should be rectified although nobody has yet found the magic formula to fix even half of these problems let alone all. 

However, there are two realities in Sri Lankan democracy that are positive and remain somewhat under appreciated. First, we have managed to retain the system that allows the citizens to exercise their right to elect their rulers in a reasonably democratic and fair manner. There have been some serious blemishes, especially in the last few decades. Mrs. Bandaranaike postponed the general elections by two years from 1975 to 1977. In 1982 J R Jayewardene substituted the infamous referendum for a parliamentary election and extended the life of parliament by six years. One of the most controversial elections – the Kurunegala Provincial Council Election of 1999 - took place under the admimstration of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was alleged that in the 2005 presidential election the Leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Velupillai Prabhakaran was bribed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp to prevent voting in some northern electorates that very likely changed the result in favour of Rajapaksa. However, the very same Rajapaksa who was later accused of dictatorial tendencies called for a presidential election in 2015, lost it, and departed peacefully.

Second, while our poltical culture may have many blemishes, nobody can accuse Sri Lankans of being lethargic in voting. They go in large numbers to the polls, and more often than not, throw the “rascals” (perhaps we should call them, or at least quite a few of them, “crooks”) out. In the 2011 KMC election 63% voted and in the 

2015 parliamentary election 73% voted both in Mahanuwara electorate as well as in Senkadagala.  In such a context, it would be interesting to analyze the upcoming local government elections especially taking into account the changes that have occurred in the system of election.

Local Government

In Sri Lanka local government (LG) institutions are the third tier of government. The second tier, Provincial Councils (PC), was introduced in 1987-88. The PCs are entrusted with the task of overlooking the local government institutions in their respective jurisdictions.  

The main function of local government is to attend to local matters. Somebody has to take care of garbage, sewerage, secondary and minor roads, streetlights, cemeteries and so on that are vital to the life of the community. In principle these tasks can be entrusted to a bureaucracy without any involvement of elected representatives. This happened from 1970 to 1977 when the Sirima Bandaranaike admimstration dissolved all local authorities and ran them under special commissioners. It was repeated more recently for a short period in the run up to the present election when the government dissolved local authorities and appointed bureaucrats to run the admimstration.


But in a democracy, it is desirable to have elected bodies for more than one reason. The elected representatives can be more responsive to the needs of the people. LG also serve as a cradle for people to seek and gain experience in elected office with the ambition of seeking higher office. There has been no shortage of candidates to contest the upcoming LG elections. In Kandy all four major parties have put forward candidates that add up to 176.

The current LG election cycle 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 and the forth is the campaign itself. We shall review each of these in brief.

Doubling of Members

Many, including some who are contesting the election consider the doubling of members to LG bodies to over 8000 as an unnecessary expansion. Some criticize it saying that it would make local governance more difficult because it would be harder to reach agreement when there are more members. Many point out to the “high” cost of maintenance imposed on the taxpayers. One estimate is that the cost of maintaining over 8000 elected LG members would total about Rs 2.5 billion. In an Rs 12,000 billion economy this may or may not be a burden depending on what these members do. If they do an honest job of work to help the local economy and society the Rs 2.5 billion may prove to be a good investment. However, what we do know is that the pay for Mayors and members is very modest. At present a mayor is paid Rs 30,000 per month as salary, the Deputy Rs 25,000 and a member Rs 20,000. For each sitting which usually is once a month, each member is paid Rs 1,000 and for a Committee Sitting Rs 500. In addition the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor get an official vehicle with driver each and a few other perks. The mayor's salary is probably less than what many three-wheeler drivers earn for a month.

The job of member is not a fulltime job. But the Mayor is the chief executive and has a full workload.  It makes little sense for people to demand elected officials to work for free or on the cheap. If the taxpayers are not willing to pay a decent salary two consequences are bound to follow. First, some will resort to bribery and corrupt practices to make a living. Second, elected office will be limited to the wealthy that have other means of income. Even if the latter is an acceptable arrangement, there are two caveats. First, that will exclude people from more humble circumstances from seeking elected office. Second, those who are wealthy can also misuse office for private gain.

Mixed System

A majority of people appears to like the return of the old ward system to local government. People believe that the ward members will pay more attention to local issues. The interviews that we conducted with candidates contesting wards generally confirmed this impression. The candidate was keenly aware that they have to convince the ward voters of his or her merits to earn their vote. Many were from the neighborhood, and were familiar with the people and the local issues. The average ward in Kandy has about 3700 voters. That is a manageable number. The old citywide preferential vote favored candidates with more resources who could afford to canvas citywide. The ward system has opened the door to candidates with more modest means.


There are three multi member wards in Kandy. It appears that all three are designed to help a minority ethnic group elect one of their own to the Council. In theory, Sri Lanka should move away from sectarian politics. But a concession to current reality is understandable.

Some critics have pointed out that the new system could have been more empowering for the voters allowing them to choose an individual candidate at the ward level while also casting a vote for the party of their choice. In principle, this may have helped to improve the political culture of the country because people may vote for a “good” person even from an opposing party for the ward while using the second ballot to vote for a party to elect the Additional List members (40%). But the current system is designed to strengthen the power of the party leadership more than the power of the voter.  

For example, the party can decide to nominate for the 16 List slots in the KMC anybody from either the Additional List or from among those who were defeated in the ward contest. In the case of dual member wards the party has the power to nominate one of the two candidates that the party has nominated in case the party wins only one seat in the ward.

The election of members from a List helps the smaller parties in particular who fail to win seats under the first past the post ward system. We have explained how it works elsewhere in this issue. But the list system has its own pros and cons. On the positive side it allows the party 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. This is notwithstanding the boast of the country that it produced the world’s first female prime minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike in July 1960.  While that is true, neither she nor her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga who was president for 11 years from 1995 took any meaningful steps to encourage greater female participation in Sri Lankan politics. 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 nearly at the bottom. In that context the 25% quota for women is a major step to get women to participate more actively in Sri Lankan politics.

Not everybody shares the view that this is a progressive step. One conservative former member of the KMC who is contesting this time also expressed strong opposition to the female quota on the grounds that it would undermine Sri Lanka’s culture. But that appears to be a distinctly minority view. Most including some male candidates that we interviewed believe that women would make a significant contribution to government. In particular there appears to be a belief that more women may be the answer to the putrid poltical culture of the country that tolerates bribery, corruption, deceit and violence. It is hard to judge if the presence of more women would necessarily improve the political culture.  Given the failures of the past few decades to make a change, there is no reason not to try a fresh avenue to initiate change. 

It would be interesting to watch how the women would fair in the forthcoming elections. In Kandy almost none of the women nominated have wide name recognition. That may also be partly the result of the low participation rate of women in politics. Also few women, especially from the professional class, will want to join the fray at this stage because of the negative image of Sri Lankan politics. But the important point is that 10 women are guaranteed to sit in the next Kandy Municipal Council. Thus they will gain name recognition in the coming years.  The long-term consequences are not predictable but could be positive.

It is interesting to watch if any women would get elected from the wards. The ward ballot paper will not carry the names of the candidates. Thus it would, at best, be a vote partly for the party and partly for the individual. The present writer does not have sufficient information to make predictions about the chances of women candidates contesting in Kandy. However, in two multi member wards, Galewatta and Katukelle, the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF) that the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa backs, has nominated two women to each of the wards. That guarantees that if the party wins a woman will secure at least one seat in the ward. In the case of Galewatta one of the two UNP candidates is also a woman that further strengthens the chances of a woman being returned from that ward.

If none of the women win from the wards, all 10 women will have to come from the List. The parties have to pick their respective nominees. One implication of all 10 coming from the List would be that only 6 males at most would come for all the lists.

Local vs. National

In the course of the research that we did to prepare this election supplement we noticed some clear differences in the attitude of candidates and party leaders in the way that they appealed to the voters. At the national level, the top party leaders spoke about national issues as if the poll was about electing a new president. The emphasis on national issues varied depending on the party and their role in governance. For example, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa largely focused on national issues because he appears to treat the election as a referendum on the government. President Maithripala Sirisena also focuses a great deal on national issue, may be partly because he is the president of the country and partly because he sees himself, as the leader of the SLFP, to be in a three-way contest with the UNP as one rival and the former president’s SLPF as the other. The senior JVP leaders also stress national issues presenting their party as the alternative to the three main parties. The JVP also suffers from the disadvantage of not having a strong local base in Kandy to substantively bring up local issues. In contrast, the UNP leader uses his power in government to weave a narrative that includes various promises to develop Kandy as a part of the government’s development program.

Some have criticized the leaders of the national parties for conducting a national campaign largely ignoring local issues. However, when one speaks to local contestants one gets a somewhat different flavor. For sure the SLPF candidates stress the weakness of the present government just as much as UNP and SLFP candidates stress the shortcomings of the Rajapaksa administration. But almost all local candidates focus on the widely known problems of Kandy city ranging from traffic congestion and air pollution to the need for more planned development of the city while conserving its historic character. Even more interestingly the lesser-known candidates of all parties pay a great deal of attention to issues that affect specific communities within the municipal boundaries. The point made here is that media reports on the LG elections campaigns focus on the national issues that the party leaders raise and almost totally neglect the local issues to which local candidates pay very considerable attention. Thus there is indeed a local government election campaign in full swing but the national media does not cover that. Unfortunately Sri Lanka also does not have a well-developed local media to undertake that task.

Sam S