Delusion of power

We seek our readers' indulgence to delve into the subject of Provincial Councils for a second consecutive week: the reason being the interest generated by yesterday's elections to the councils of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces. There might have been some interest within the provinces about the candidates, but the interest countrywide was more to see how the Government and the Opposition fared in the popularity stakes mid-way through the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency.

As our Political Editor stated last week, the unfortunate voters of these two provinces had to pick between the likes of Sarpaya, Chokka Malli, Abey Aiyya; Heen Bappa; Deiyya. Fading fast are the days when professionals and respectable persons got into local councils as a stepping-stone to national politics.

Today's candidates have to be armed and surrounded by either bodyguards or thugs; the credo is victory - by hook or by crook. The past three weeks or so during the run-up to the polls, violence was unleashed from all quarters, reaching a crescendo with the burning of a respected medical practitioner's house in Anuradhapura and the mauling of the brother of the ruling party's secretary.

The tit-for-tat nature of the incidents probably signalled that no party had a monopoly on the violence. In contrast, yesterday's poll was unusually, unexpectedly calm. Probably, it dawned on the High and Mighty that violence only begets violence, and that the public mood could swing in the opposite direction should they continue to have blood on their hands.

Our concern, however, is not who would be declared the winner of these two provinces, but about the Provincial Councils themselves. Even during the campaign, we heard seasoned campaigners complaining about the futility of these councils. They have been often referred to as 'white elephants', and as good as the money doled out to them from the Central Government.

We know how those meagre, but precious monies have been spent, how the first thing these councillors do is to organise 'study tours' for themselves overseas and how, like their seniors in the National Legislature, all parties join hands to buy themselves vehicles - and at least get themselves a permit to import a duty-free car, before flogging it to a businessman and pocketing the money.

It is because of these perks, coupled with the fact that no respectable person wishes to indulge in the brand of politicking that was witnessed during the past three weeks, that the list of candidates includes husbands, wives, sons, relatives and close associates of current politicians. It's just widening the same circle - while the people must languish with lower standards in health services, education facilities, transport facilities etc., in these provinces. The limited resources are being frittered away by an already over-sized political machinery.

Unfortunately, none of the political parties campaigned to oppose this system of devolution of power, even though they know that it is not a productive system. Political parties that opposed this system once have got sucked into it like a honey-trap, for their own party cadres and supporters to be rewarded with - all at the expense of the national purse.

This is not power to the grassroots; it's just giving more power to the same circle of people. Depending on yesterday's results, the Government is likely to decide whether or not to have more Provincial Council elections - and more violence in other parts of the country. But it is not addressing the issue of whether the Provincial Councils are any good for the people they are meant to serve.

More elections will necessarily mean asking more businessmen with excess and often undeclared cash, to contribute to 'party funds', in return for a favour someday. As if all this is not bad enough, the proportional representation system has been the cause of intra-party back-stabbing, and confusion among the voters. The whole Provincial Council system reeks of such corruption and inefficiency that it is difficult to find anything likeable about it.

One aspect that showed up during the last three weeks of the campaign was the sheer powerlessness of the men in khaki. It was sad spectacle to see policemen as mere spectators when the law was being breached with impunity. There is a great need to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and restore public confidence in an independent police service.
But in all seriousness, 21 years after the introduction of the Provincial Council system, forced on the then Government as a 'Made in India' panacea for the solving of a problem in one part of the country, it is high time that all parties got together and ascertained the usefulness, or otherwise, of this system of government.

One cannot divide Sri Lanka on ethnic or religious lines as its citizens are so inter-mingled and equally, you can't have a system of government which serves the needs of no-one but those who sit in its councils.

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