The local government and people empowerment in Sri Lanka

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As a parliamentary democracy, Sri Lanka had experienced the formulation and exercise of political power at different levels. In this context, it is pertinent; to examine the institutions of government at the lowest level. During the colonial rule, the Government Agents (GAS) were very powerful and important agents of the central government.

Though they were mainly revenue agents, they 1 were given other powers to control all government activities in their regions. However, after independence, their influence declined’ as they had to compete j with the elected members of Parliament and other authorities of the government. J Local government revolved around a system of councils at the village, town, j and municipal levels.

These governments had limited revenues and carried out I a Relatively small number of functions such as overseeing public works in the I city or village under their jurisdiction. In 1981, these village,town and municipal ] councils were replaced by the District Development Councils (DDCs).

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The | DDCs were created largely to satisfy minority aspirations for local self-1 government and were designed to exercise a significant measure of autonomy, especially-as the name implies-in the area of economic planning and I development. However, these district councils floundered from the very beginning. Major opposition parties such as the SLFP the LSSP opposed the 1 scheme and even boycotted the first elections to the DDCs in 1981

The scheme did not get attention from successive governments and was finally replaced by provincial councils in 1988. As of now, there are eight provincial councils covering the geographical regions of the island. The first election to the North-East Council was held in 1988 as per the Indo-Lanka accord to grant some sort of autonomy to the Tamil regions in the north and east of the island. Each province has an elected council with a chief minister and a group of ministers approved by the council.

The councils have started the removal of the former system of the local administration. Each province is divided into two or three administrative districts. Each district has a set of government offices called kachcheri, which are main functionaries in each district. Apart from the kachcheri and the provincial councils, there are several elected local government councils in each district, which carry out a small number of functions.

Over all, local government has remained very weak in Sri Lanka. As a unitary state, most of the revenue generated by the government is in the hands of the national government in Colombo. Often the decisions made by the national government are implemented by the local government.

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The intensification of the Tamil demand for a separate homeland, partly due to the failure of the decentralisation experiment under the DDC, resulted in further centralisation of the polity with the government trying to meet the challenge by resorting to authoritarian measures and emergency laws in the name of national security.

Empowerment in Sri Lanka

Recent political indications, the country seems to be plagued by problems of political uncertainty, ethnic polarisation and economic crisis. For instance, in the last general elections held in April, 2004, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga emerged as the single largest combine in the 225-member Parliament but fell short of a majority to form a government on its own.

The point is though the UPFA as a combine of the left-of-centre parties like Kumaratunga’s SLFP and the JVP, it did not obtain the majority-mark of 113. On the other hand, Wicker Singh UNP ended up with just 82 seats and lost power to the Kumaratunga-led front.

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These latest elections were held for the third time in the last four years after the collapse of a bitter cohabitation government between the constitutionally powerful executive President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicker sing he of the UNP-led alliance. Another important feature of the current electoral politics is the emergence of voting on ethnic lines. For instance, the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was backed by the LTTE, swept the Tamil-majority areas in the north and the east.

It emerged as the third largest party with 22 seats. On the other hand, the Jathika Hela Urunaya (JHU), which fielded Buddhist monks in all constituencies, succeeded in sending nine of them to Parliament. Likewise, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won five seats in the Muslim-inhabited regions. Broadly, the voting pattern reflected ethnic polarisation as the hard-core Sinhala and Tamil parties swept the polls in the and north of the country respectively.

Moreover, the elections conducted under the proportional representation system, has once again created a situation where the main parties could not form a government without the support of smaller parties.

Therefore, the present political alignments do not indicate any positive signs of a healthy, democratic and stable politics for the country.

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Another point is that the main reason that triggered parliamentary polls four years ahead of schedule was the political machinations of the SLFP-JVP combine to gain power. Although the two are left-of centre parties, they have serious differences on the crucial issue of Tamil problem and peace process as their positions are diametrically opposite. In January 2004, when the SLFP and the JVP joined hands after year long negotiations, they agreed to disagree or the fundamental issue of solving the decades-long separatist crisis.

While the SLFP wants to end it through greater devolution of power, marking a move away from the unitary state, the JVP is sharply opposed to these concepts does not want any dilution of the nature of the present state. The JVP’s views his issue are closer to that of the JHU which consists of Buddhist monks, her wise, there is relatively some convergence of opinion between the SLFP atld the LNP on the Tamil issues that dominate the Sri Lankan politics. But they cannot come together due to the historical rivalry and the need for political survival.

On the other hand, the Tamil party, the TNA had contested the elections on the twin planks of accepting the LTTE as the sole representatives of ethnic Tamils and its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) as the basis for negotiations. For the LTTE, which participated in elections for the first time, the verdict in the Tamil areas was a message to both Sri Lanka and the international community. Paradoxically, the LTTE which refused to lay down arms or renounce violence during the negotiations with the UNP government is represented by its nominees in Parliament with Sinhala chauvinists in Parliament, providing the setting for the clash of hard-line opinions.

The success of the arithmetic is evident from the vote tally of the UPFA. In the 200(1 election, the SLEP won 37.2 per cent and the JVP won 9.1 per cent, making | total of 46.3 per cent of the vote while the UNP and won 45.6 per cent of the vote then. In the 2004 election, the UPFA secured 45.6 per cent while the UNP’s electoral alliance with the CWC and the SLMC ensured it a majority in the last elections.

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In a sense, the Kumaratunga-led the UPFA’s victory is a result of the poll arithmetic of the SLFP-JVP alliance and an endorsement of its main conception that UNP was conceding too much to the LTTE in till negotiations that have been stalled for a long time.

But as of now, there is some willingness on the part of government to re-start the peace process asil is under external pressures from aid-donor countries. India has also played £ positive role in sustaining the democratic process in Lanka which is crucial for peace and progress in South Asia.

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