Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The re-demarcation of local authority boundaries on ethnic or religious lines!

The next local council elections will be held on a different basis, which is a hybrid of a PR system along with one where there is a first past the post for a demarcated territory. So for example when there is a territory that has two communities, Sinhala and Tamil, then if people vote on ethnic lines, an ethnic party may have a distinct advantage over a traditional non ethnic party that fields a candidate. It must be remembered that was the reason for multi member constituencies so that both communities would be represented. What will be the preference of the voters? I suspect again it will be on ethnic lines for minorities as we have not got over, especially in areas of mixed communities, our fear of people of different races.

I would ideally like to dream that this country is race blind, but I am a realist and therefore it may be most appropriate to demarcate each ward in a local authority area by ethnic mix if there is such a pocket to get ethnic representation! If one takes Bambalapitiya in Colombo, the ethnic mix has changed over the years into one where the Tamil population is probably the largest, then Muslim and only finally Sinhala. It is impossible to demarcate as all three communities live side by side and so we must hope that people will vote for party and not race or religion.

The JHU wants it to be completely color blind and NOT segregate into ethnic lines. Who will benefit from that policy? This is going to be a first past the post system for that ward, and if we have say 8 political parties with 3 being religious with JHU NOT being one of them as they will contest with the UPFA banner, then the votes of the ethnic community that say get 20% of the vote may win, as all the other parties share 80% and the winner just gets more votes than the second placed.

Will the JHU be happy with a Muslim Congress candidate winning if the Muslims vote for that candidate knowing they may be able to win that ward? Whilst the Sinhala majority vote is split amongst all the National parties contesting the election, including the UPFA, UNP and the JVP and a sprinkling of fringe parties and even a TNA where all the Tamils vote for them, the Muslim party will win!

That is why I have been opposed to any race or religion based party, as it can skew the outcome of an election that gives minority representation, and if in this case a Muslim from the Muslim Congress is elected, then will he help anyone else in his area other than fellow Muslims (20%), resulting in racial or religious intolerance!

So just think about a practical solution which will prevent the inevitable fallout.
In Today’s papers, Minister Dinesh Gunewardene advising the Commitee that is doing the redistricting, has requested it be Ethnic blind in their demarcation. That is fair as whatever one does except having an area which is almost exclusively one ethnic community, WILL NOT ensure representation from that community.

These issues do not arise from a mature democracy, but I hasten to remind the reader of the incredibly convoluted redistricting of US Congressional Electorates aimed at ensuring minority representation. This is to ensure that minorities are represented in Congress, from whatever party.

The answer to that in our system is for the members the party appoints on the PR basis reflect the area’s minority representation fairly and the onus is on the political parties concerned so to do without mandating. The same would arise for gender as mandating will not necessarily ensure balanced representation of people of caliber.

A further complication in the SL electoral process is the caste issue when it comes to voting, especially in Provinces such as the Central Province, where in certain electorates, people of a caste different to the majority representation has little chance of election. Ironically though caste is seen as less important, when it comes to elections, and arranged marriage, it seems to raise its ugly head as an issue of importance.

Of course we must educate the electorate to look beyond, age, gender, caste, creed and race when making choices amongst candidates, and instead choose who they believe to be the best candidate for the job. It is easier said than done. However the demarcation commissions must look ahead to this utopia and how they could assist us in that direction by making enlightened decisions with regard to the redistricting of boundaries for the next local government elections.

All political parties will have a problem as they can only pick ONE candidate to represent them in the first past the post system for that area. So the infighting now will be in who to pick and the disappointment and the resulting reaction of those not appointed who believe they should be the first choice to contest!

The PR system gave that privilege to the street fight during elections to secure the vote, here it is at the stage of appointment of the candidate to represent one’s party. Already there are behind the scenes activity taking place to jockey for power to be the candidate of the political party for an area. The political parties MUST use this opportunity to create competition, so one can see if there is a clear winner. In doing so, the party should use this opportunity to increase its grass roots representation.

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