Sri Lanka: Politics of Citizens (Non-)Participation in Local Governance

, by PEIRIS Pradeep

Pradeep Peiris argues that there is apathy by most to the Citizen’s Forum and other participatory governance initiatives, as they choose or are compelled to utilise party-based and/or network-based loyalty systems instead; and equal disinterest among local politicians and bureaucrats in the participation of people in local government. Drawing on field research in three districts where non-governmental organisations have been engaged in sustained participatory governance initiatives, he concludes that these are undermined by the reality that there is nothing particularly ‘local’ about local politics in Sri Lanka.

1. Introduction

This essay examines the rationale for increased citizen participation in local governance and how such participation is vital for deepening democracy. It is on such rationale that various civil society organisations venture into capacity-building projects to increase citizen participation.

However, it also observes that although democratic citizen participation in local governance is largely absent, people do maintain access to the local councils through party-based and network-based loyalties.

Within this framework, the paper will discuss some findings of an evaluation conducted for an international agency to examine the politics of citizen participation in local governance based on the experiences of its partners in Sri Lanka.

The main conceptual finding is that there is a fundamental fallacy in the expectation of donors and civil society organisations that local governance and local democracy provide a space where citizens are empowered to have “direct participation and control over immediate locales” (Held 1996: 289). In fact, neither citizens nor politicians show clear interest in, or enthusiasm for, participatory governance.

2. Local Government as a Site for Local Democracy

In the political theory of democracy, local government is generally seen as a site where the average citizen, especially the subalterns [those socially, politically and geographically marginalised], can enjoy more democracy. Unlike in the national and provincial levels, there is comparatively less distance between the representatives and the voters at the local level.

Therefore, local government provides more space for common people in the periphery to take part in governance to increase the conditions for greater social inclusion (Stoker 1991).

In addition, such participation ensures that the interests, values and traditions of the local communities are represented in governance. Local governance is instrumental in decentralising both public administration and development. As the members of these local councils are elected through democratic elections, in theory, local communities can participate closely in the decision making of affairs affecting them. Therefore, local government with public participation certainly contributes towards expanding, enriching and deepening the practice of democracy (Uyangoda 2015).

It is for these reasons that many development agencies and local civil society agencies have invested in increasing citizen participation in local governance as an obvious strategy to increase local democracy. Numerous programmes, costing millions of rupees, have been and are being implemented across many parts of the country to raise citizen awareness on local government and encourage citizen engagement in local councils through public galleries and participatory budgeting. The stakeholders – citizens, bureaucrats, and local politicians – have benefited from these local governance programmes conducted by various non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For many years, these programmes have provided training to people as well as local government officers on various aspects of participatory governance, in addition to the material assistance extended to facilitate citizen participation in local governance (Akurugoda 2018).

3. Active Citizenship for Development Network (ACDN)

The initiatives taken by the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR), National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Uva Community Development Centre (UCDC) who have combined their efforts to form the Active Citizenship for Development Network (ACDN) yielded some valuable insights into the relationship between citizens and local governance.

They have made multiple interventions such as forming Citizens Forums (CF’s), trainings for in-house staff in capacity building – specifically developing alternative budget proposals and monitoring the Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) through the public gallery and standing committees – and petitioning. These initiatives aim to increase citizens’ participation in decision making processes to ensure participatory governance, accountability and fair representation in their respective local government institutions.

Although the ACDN has implemented these initiatives in five districts, this paper is based on field-study conducted in Bandarawela (Badulla district), Lahugala (Ampara district), and Trincomalee Town and Gravets (Trincomalee district) alone. These PSs were selected as locations where the ACDN witnessed comparatively high levels of success. Although these initiatives generally aimed to achieve one common outcome – increased citizen participation in local government – their actions or interventions differ from one place to another.

Thus the Citizens Forum (CF) in Paanama primarily focuses its energies on the Paanama land issue, where the original inhabitants have been deprived of access to their lands located on the potentially lucrative beach front [1] . The CF in Trincomalee concentrates on the regular needs of the community and works towards collectively flagging them to the Local Authority (LA). The CF in Bandarawela mainly functioned as a platform on which local community-based organisations (CBOs) could voice their concerns and hopefully get them addressed by interacting with their LA. Of course, in addition to the CF interventions, the three partners have engaged in many other local and national issues to strengthen citizen participation in governance in general.

4. Citizen Participation is Exclusive to Elections

The response of the authorities, politicians, as well as citizens to these participatory governance initiatives not only highlights the challenges to such projects, but also the nature of politics at the local level. Despite years of the prevalence of functional CFs, villagers in the respective localities record poor levels of participation in local governance.

In order to inquire into the impact of CF initiatives, the level of participation of the villagers in the localities where CFs were functional was compared with other localities in the respective local government areas. The findings revealed that the level of citizen participation in the villages where CFs were not located was not very different to villages where CFs were functioning.

Table 1 depicts the level of participation in the villages where CFs were functioning. Aside from rallies in Bandarawela and Paanama, participation in other activities was not significant, especially considering that these are the people who came under the focus of CF advocacy activities. The higher level of participation in protests and rallies among the people of Paanama and Bandarawela was expected as these two groups were at the core of the ongoing national level protest campaigns against the Paanama land issue and the Uma Oya project [2] . There was very low level, if not no participation, in budget preparation and the public galleries in both locations.

Table 1: Citizens Participation in ACDN Locations

Source: Social Scientists’ Association, Evaluation of CAFOD-supported Participatory Governance Programmes in Sri Lanka (2017)

Poor citizen participation is certainly not a ground-breaking finding. Previous studies have already noted that despite numerous interventions by the government as well as development agencies, citizen participation in local government continues to be very weak (Uyangoda 2011; Peiris and Schubert 2016). The initiatives of many participatory governance projects – such as Citizen Forums, Public Galleries, and Participatory Budgeting– have not survived beyond the project term of the implementation agencies, despite large sums of funds being spent on persuading the citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats (Uyangoda 2015). 

However, Sri Lankans demonstrate great enthusiasm in electoral participation not only at national level elections but also at local government ones. For example, the February 10, 2018 local government election recorded over 70% voter turnout across the country. This high level of interest shown at the time of elections cannot be seen in between elections; not only at the national level, but even at the local level of governance.

Therefore, it is interesting to inquire as to why citizens’ participation in local government is alarmingly poor. Does that mean citizens have no access to local government at all? Or do citizens employ different strategies to realise their interests that are external to (liberal) democratic participation?

5. Strictly Procedural Democracy

Answers to the above questions rest in the nature of democracy that we practice; as well as in the nature of the political system within which the state-society relationship is defined. Firstly, the current form of liberal democratic practice generally “elicits mass loyalty but avoids participation” (Habermas 1973: 648). What we have embraced as ‘democracy’, is what some theorists call ‘procedural democracy’. Procedural democracy does not expect citizens to be active in every sphere of governance, after electing their representatives through free and fair elections.Therefore, the democratic discourse among citizens, as well as its institutional design, does not generally encourage citizen participation in the governance process outside of election times. 

6. Shrinking Scope of Local Authorities (LAs)

The scope for citizen participation in local councils continues to shrink as the jurisdiction of the local councils is increasingly restricted by way of powers being transferred to other government and private institutions. For instance, the functional aspect of many of the powers previously entrusted to the PS has been transferred to the DS or other administrative establishments of the central government, such as the Road Development Authority [3] . Hence the public has less of a need to interact with the PS on a regular basis.

One informant, the former Gender Adviser of OXFAM Sri Lanka, recalled how the Australia Community Rehabilitation Program (ACRP) for strengthening civil society identified the administrative arm of the state as the main link between the civil society and state because, ironically enough, the elected arm appointed by the people themselves has become more or less redundant. She further noted that the issues the community was grappling with required that any intervening organisation worked with the administrative arm, as opposed to the elected one, to produce relevant and effective results [4].

7. Institutional and Political Dominance of the Centre

Although successive governments have continued to boast about their commitment to decentralisation and devolution of powers, they have actually practiced the exact opposite. The agencies of the central government such as the offices of the District and Divisional Secretariats; local offices of various ministries and departments; Grama Niladharis; Samurdhi officers; Cultivation Officers; and Family Health Officers, play a more dominant role in regular civic life than the elected PSs.

Uyangoda (2015: 210) succinctly illustrating this dominance of the centre, states that “in the specific pattern of state formation in Sri Lanka during the post-colonial phase, agencies of the executive branch of the central government have become dominant over local government institutions in local governance”.

Many other studies have also warned about the vulnerability of local governance to the dominance of central government institutions (Pratchett and Wilson 1996; Hettige 2008; Uyangoda 2011). This has been compounded by the political patronage system which further binds the regions to the centre in terms of both financial and political survival.

Although local government representatives get elected from their respective local areas, these actors are agents or local-level vote collectors of national politicians; mainly belonging to either the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or the United National Party (UNP). Therefore, rather than aggregating local opinion to influence the centre, in practice they represent the centre and assist national level politicians to execute their projects. Hence, it could be said that local (and even provincial) government structures have been set up to convey the policies and patronage of the centre to the grassroots, and not to communicate grassroots needs and aspirations to the centre as assumed (Peiris 2018).

There is a strong body of scholarship arguing that patron-client relationships play a key role in forming and sustaining the relationship between the politician and the voter (Jupp 1978; Kearney 1973; Uyangoda 2010; Peiris 2018). Local level politicians act as mediators and brokers in these patron-client networks between national level politicians and citizens at the grassroots (Hettige 1984; Peiris 2018). National level politicians, in turn, sustain a team of individuals as their local level agents by providing various patronage goods to amass votes during times of elections (Jiggins 1979; Hettige 1984; Perera 1985; Peiris 2014).

The function of local level politicians is very much reflective of these realities and attendant calculations. For instance, in the course of field interviews, a female member of the Lahugala PS thanked her party’s national-level politician, responsible for the district, for the assistance and sponsorship she was given in her local campaign.

8. Local Politicians as Mediators not Representatives

While they gradually become less important and relevant to the lives of citizens, politicians at the local level have also lost public trust and respect at the same time. Despite being elected by the votes of local communities, the local councillors are hardly perceived by the people as their representatives.

Discussions with the communities in our field locations revealed that it is common sense among the people that local politicians are mere local henchmen of national politicians. Although people pay respect to these local politicians in their presence; in their absence, they are cynically referred to as kontharathkarayo (contractors) because they accumulate their wealth through contracts of village development projects in their respective areas.

Uyangoda (2015: 212) has also highlighted similar negative attitudes towards local politicians observed during his research in Kurunegala.

“Expressions such as ‘corrupt’ (dushitha), ‘useless’ (wedakatanethi) and ‘ever ready to take bribes’ (pagamaruwo), and ‘not committed to serving the community’ (gamatawedaknokarana) were epithets which people often used when they articulated their attitudes to local government institutions as well as personnel attached to them.”

Citizens are not only well aware of the true nature of politics, but are also well accustomed to the realities of local governance. As discussions with the community groups during fieldwork revealed, people in fact expect to receive patronage rather than policy responses. Often their interaction with local level politicians – and even national ones at that – is very much based on this expectation.

Politics has become less and less about policies and decidedly more about material gain, both on the part of politicians as well as the public. Therefore, local authorities do not function in the same way that liberal democratic theory expects; whereby people send their representatives to their local councils to make policy decisions that represent the interests of the community. Instead, people send their representatives to the local authorities based on their party affiliation, kinship, caste groups, etc. with the expectation that they would address their needs; not by implementing policies, but by distributing patronage.

9. Lack of Support for A Rights-Based

Approach In this context where citizens who participate in local government matters are often found to be beneficiaries of local politicians, local level politicians in power do not welcome independent citizen participation in their activities or any one making policy-related suggestions such as what projects need to be implemented in the area, or criticising the work of local authorities.

They mainly expect the citizens to be passive recipients of the patronage goods they distribute, and to supply votes in exchange for such goods (Peiris 2014). Therefore, people find it rational to approach politicians through various local power networks (temple committees, kinship networks, other cultural networks, etc.) in order to meet their individual needs, rather than fighting for their rights collectively. 

The experience of the Paanama CF is a case in point. It was clearly visible that the land struggle led by the Paanama CF had not been attractive to many in the area. On the one hand, only a small group of people in the area were affected by the land issue, while on the other hand local politicians from both main parties, the UNP and the SLFP, did not clearly support the affected communities.

Therefore, the Paanama CF intervention has turned out to be a struggle of a few in the area against a powerful group of political, bureaucratic and business elites who clearly receive the support of the politicians of the local council. The Paanama CF has been able to sustain its struggle mainly due to the support it receives from many national and regional civil society groups and well-wishers from outside of the area.

Unlike Paanama CF, Trincomalee and Bandarawela CFs seem to be working in collaboration with their respective local councils and managed to secure th eparticipation of local politicians. In Trincomalee, officials were not aware of the existence of the CF, but they recognised the activities of the CF by the name of the coordinator. Such good communication between project officers, local politicians, and bureaucrats certainly assists the community organisation in obtaining access to the local authorities as well as to receive the latter’s cooperation for interventions carried out by community groups.

However, this amicable relationship between the local authorities and CFs does not guarantee increased citizen participation in local governance. Interviews with local government officials (both elected and appointed) suggested that neither elected nor appointed officers expect the engagement of the CF in the decision-making process, and they also do not believe in making provision for such collaboration [5]

10. Conclusion

Politics at the local level is not really local, as it often is a manifestation of national level political aspirations. As a consequence, local government has failed to create productive democratic spaces in strengthening local democracy. This paper has identified multiple factors that have transformed the Local Authorities from an agent of deepening democracy to an instrument that connects national-level clientelistic politics with local communities.

The common sense rationale in this space is not to take part in collective struggles for common goals, but rather to seek individual connectivity with the patronage network to secure individual benefits. In this context, it is quite rational for citizens to participate in elections while avoiding collective activism.

Bearing this in mind, any participatory governance programme is inherently exposed to either of the following two risks: i) being absorbed into the existing patronage network within villages or ii) being treated as organisations that are a hindrance to the dominance of those in power, de-legitimised and sidelined. If the programme is subsequently absorbed into the existing patronage network, it will fail to empower citizens despite its capacity to win the support of the political leadership. On the other hand, if politicians begin to perceive such programmes as a hindrance to their dominance, local activists will face antagonism from the political authority, preventing possibilities of encouraging a democratic citizen-politician nexus.

Utilitarian calculations, under the existing political system of the country, undoubtedly would encourage people to work with the political authority as subjects than citizens; whereby they put forward their needs instead of their rights. Unfortunately, we may have to recognise the rationale of the average individual who participates in the patronage system as a reasonable political act. Therefore, one should not be surprised to observe a lack of citizen participation in governance, even where advocacy for participatory governance is dramatically increased.

Pradeep Peiris

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[1Paanama (sometimes spelled Panama) comprises a few villages in Ampara in the south-east of Sri Lanka, where traditionally the people lived from farming, fishing and agriculture. Starting in 2003, the villagers’ land began to be confiscated by state actors, resulting in around 350 families being evicted or displaced from their homes and deprived of their means of livelihood. At the end of the war in 2009, this land was taken over by the armed forces. In 2010, the villagers filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission regional office in Ampara, which carried out an investigation and reported that they had been unfairly treated seeing as the land had been previously occupied by them. In 2011, the issue was taken up by civil society including CAFOD partners, and in 2012 the PARL (People’s Alliance for Right to Land) was set up to coordinate support for communities affected by land grabbing. In February 2015, shortly after the presidential elections which led to a change of government, a cabinet decision was taken to release 340 acres of the confiscated land, with the remaining 25 acres excluded due to construction work by the Navy already being in progress. However, the central government decision was not implemented. Threats, intimidation, and legal action have continued at the local level to prevent the villagers regaining their land. The latest action in the campaign was a petition with 20,000 local and international signatures handed in to the Presidential Secretariat office on June 14, 2017.

[2The Uma Oya Multi-Purpose Development project began with Iranian funding in 2008, with initially no environmental clearance. To manage public opposition to this arbitrary action, the government commissioned an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), calling for public reviews over 30 working days. Despite objections that the EIA was inadequate, the project formally began towards the end of 2010. The project today has resulted in a serious shortage of water in the previously self-sufficient Bandarawela region, in addition to causing many householders to leave their houses due to severe cracks and sometimes instances of houses sinking into the ground. Similar to Paanama, the Uma Oya issue has mainly to do with decision-making of the central government, and therefore attempted remedial action also transcends the local level.

[3Key Informant Interview with Programme Officer, Federation of Sri Lanka Local Government Authorities, Colombo, July 20, 2017.

[4Key Informant Interview with former Gender Adviser of OXFAM Sri Lanka, Colombo, July 26, 2017.

[5Key Informant Interviews with exPS Chairman, Vice Chairman, and current Secretaries of Trincomalee Town and Gravets, Lahugala and Bandarawela, between March 31 – April 8, 2017.