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Representation for women need not be at the expense of a bloated local government

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The two major parties in Government have apparently agreed on constitutional reforms that do not require a referendum. With 01presidential powers already reduced to some extent and independent commissions now functioning more or less, electoral reforms, if carried out with the larger constitutional objectives in mind, present a reform tool with significant impact. 

Unfortunately, electoral reforms are planned and implemented piecemeal largely with nothing more than cut and dried solutions presented on political manifestos as the basis. Yes, as intended in those manifestoes (1) representatives have to be brought closer to people (2) intra-party competition has to be reduced if not eliminated and (3) excessive campaign spending should be discouraged removing incentives for corruption before or after elections, but, the reforms need to be better rationalized and more coherently implemented. 

Unfortunately, what we see is a fixation on a mixed-member method system with piecemeal application of the same across different levels of government. The result is an aborted 20th Amendment to reform Parliamentary elections in 2015, and now a strange beast of a local government electoral method made up of several amendments to existing legislation. The latest amendment to local government elections act would give 25% of seats in a council to women through a list dedicated to women. Sounds well and good at first sight, but I would caution all concerned to be careful. Will a women’s only list relegate women to a pink pedestal with little power? Have we thought through the implications of doubling the size of local councils as a result? 

It is only too easy to increase the size of local authorities to make us women feel good, but as Robert McNamara, a former Defence Secretary of US would have advised, let us first ask what we get for 8800+ representatives in a local government system which we could not get with the present 4853. To begin let us look at the projected increase in size in more detail and then discuss alternatives that will keep the size of local councils at saner levels.

CMC size will increase from 53 to 113

Two key amendments that define the new methods for local elections are the Act No. 22 of 2012 and the Act no. 1 of 2016. The former was legislated to change the PR system to a mixed system (with most members elected first-past-the post from mostly single-member constituencies and another 30% of that number returned from party lists). Act No. 1 of 2016 was an add-on to increase women’s representation. 

Taking the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) as an example, it presently has 53 members. The Gazette on ‘Demarcation of Wards of Local Authorities” published on August 15, 2015, assigns a new total of 66 members to be returned first-past-post of FPP. This large increase is due to the fact that some constituencies are to be multi-member constituencies. The PR component as per legislation would be 19 seats (or thirty percent of 66) for an interim total of 85 seats. 

The women’s quota as per legislation would then be 28 (or one third of 85). The final total of Members for the CMC is then 66+19+28 or 113. The net result is more than a doubling of the 53 Members in the present Council. In addition it should be noted that this increase is largely due to ‘19+28=47’ unelected members from Party Lists. 

Smallest Pradeshiya Sabha numbers too would nearly double 

According to the same Gazette of 2015, Neluwa Pradeshiya Sabha (PS), a small local authority with an ethnically homogeneous population, is entitled to ten members representing ten single-member constituencies. In a mixed member system, the Neluwa PS will be entitled to an additional 3 PR members. If we apply the Women’s quota legislation to this interim total of 13, a further addition of 4 women members should be apportioned to this PS, for a final total of 10+3+4=17 members. This new total is an increase of 90% from the current number of 9 Members in the Neluwa PS. 

Women could become token representatives on pink pedestals 

Currently women have a hard time getting nominations for elections. The situation is unlikely to change even if we divide the CMC area to 66 smaller wards, for example. The solution offered by the government is to create women’s only lists, where women are returned on the basis of votes received by each Party like in the National List in Parliament. This is a practical solution but has the danger of women not being given chances to contest in elections in constituencies because they have their own list, creating what I would call a pink pedestal from which it would be hard to transition to real world of politics.

Alternative mixed-Member scenario 

for a smaller increase 

in size? 

On close inspection, I think we stand to gain more by repealing the women’s representation amendment act and incorporating those ideals in the original amendment by,

1. Zipping the PR list (or mandating that every other candidates on the PR list should be a woman) and 

2. Changing the ‘may’ to a ‘shall’ in the existing legislation where it mandates that “25% of candidates may be women”.

If we make these simple changes, there will be no need for a separate women’s list and hence no need to increase the size of the local authority by an additional 25% to accommodate women. If small Parties feel they need a higher percent of PR members that would be separate matter.

Other modes of increasing women’s representation

There are other ways to optimise women’s representation. The gamut of electoral reforms extends from FPP systems to PR systems and mixed member systems in between. The applicability of each to different levels of government would be different. In South Africa for example, a PR system is used at the National and Provincial levels, but a mixed member proportional system is used at the local level. Women’s representation activists should engage themselves with larger issue of representation to avoid the danger of myopically accepting legislation simply because they increase women’s representation.

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