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Delivering public service

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The verdict the people gave at the Local Government election last weekend continues to reverberate across Sri Lanka’s political sphere. However, this message is more mixed than what a first glance would suggest. Nearly half the 340 local government bodies returned a hung verdict, creating fresh challenges to provide competent public services to the people.   

As much as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP), backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, would have you believe that the vote was clear-cut, a more nuanced picture shows that even they will have to form alliances to govern many of the Local Government bodies. In fact the political horse trading is likely to dominate the local governments, urban councils and municipalities in the coming weeks even as public attention remains fixed on the Parliament and Cabinet.     

In the hung wards, elected members at the first meeting of the council must choose from among themselves the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of the respective councils. If contested by more than one individual it will go to a vote. Transparency International this week warned such a situation provides ample opportunity for council level deal-making which will significantly test the control of party central committees on their respective local authority members. It will also bring into question whether the party with the greatest seats but not a majority is able to establish control of the authority. 

Evidence of this is already present. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) first declared for the SLPP and then two days later switched sides and announced they would support President Sirisena. Having bargained a Deputy Minister position in the process they are now likely to pose a threat to the United National Party (UNP), which won in Nuwara Eliya and Badulla. Similar switches will likely be seen when the local governments are finally sworn in. 

There are two points of concern in such a situation. One is that the party that the public actually voted to get a majority may be displaced by another party that has more resources and more clout at the national level to work a compromise. While this gives fringe parties more bargaining power it comes at the cost of the public’s franchise. While some may not like the policies of the party that won, that was the decision of the people and it must be respected. 

The second issue is that political bargaining may supersede serving the public. Unlike at the national level, local governments retain commissioners who cannot be changed by their political masters and largely remain independent. These commissioners are critical in delivering a myriad of critical services to the people. The Local Government councilors have direct access to the people at the level Parliament and the Executive do not and if the discontent starts at this point it can eventually reach the top of the political hierarchy. 

The SLPP, which lost no time demanding a parliamentary election after their win, even though under the 19th Amendment Parliament cannot be dissolved until four years of its term is over or a two-thirds majority votes for it, will find that actual governing will be harder than they anticipate. It is easy to be loved when one is in the Opposition but it is an entirely different ball game to retain the support of the public once you have been given the task of delivering public service. 

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