Get real, Pas; why should local government polls lead to another May 13?

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The Penang state government took the case right up to the Federal Court

Local government elections will improve efficiency and accountability apart from deepening democracy, says Francis Loh.

The Penang state government took the case right up to the Federal Court
The Penang state government petitioned the Federal Court for the right to conduct local council elections

Tahniah! Congratulations to Saifuddin Abdullah, former MP and deputy minister, now chief executive officer of the Global Movement of Moderates, for unequivocally supporting local government elections.

For him, local government elections will improve the efficiency and accountability of the local authorities. Such elections, he explained, “should not be looked at from the purpose of wanting to win elections only. If there are concerns on polarisation or an urban-rural divide, we should address the issue instead of using that as an excuse to not further the process of democratisation” (The Star, 26 January 2015).

Saifuddin’s statement clearly contradicted that of Pas president Abdul Hadi Awang, who had pronounced that holding local government elections would “benefit only one race”, “increase racial polarisation”, and “could lead to a repeat of the May 13 riots”.

In fact, Saifuddin’s stance contradicted that of his own Umno deputy president and deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who claimed that elected local government in Malaysia was unnecessary as it could lead to instability. Besides “we are [already] among the most democratic countries having held elections at parliamentary and state levels” (theSun, 27 January 2015).

These varying remarks by politicians on local government elections emerged following Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s call to Malaysians to push in this direction, when new appointees were being made to the Penang local authorities. His Pakatan-led Penang state government had passed and gazetted an enactment to restore local government elections several years back.

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The Penang government then requested the Elections Commission to conduct local government elections in Penang. Predictably, the Commission rejected this request. Next, the Penang government petitioned the Federal Court, which ruled in mid-2013 that the state government had no power to conduct such polls.

Aliran supports the efforts of the Penang state government in pushing for local government elections. We also agree with Saifuddin that restoring such elections will not only further the process of democratisation but also promote transparency and accountability.

It is plain to all that Local Government, being the lowest level of government, is one that ordinary people can relate to and identify with best. Accordingly, it is also local government that is more aware of the problems in an area or community and as such, can respond to these problems faster and more competently.

Should this not be the case, it will be relatively easy for ordinary people to show up at the local government office to demand follow-up action. And if the government officials do not perform or respond, we can throw them out at the next local government election.

(Of course, an additional assumption is that it would be easier for local groups and communities to compete against the political parties in pushing for our preferred candidates at the local government level than it would be at the Dewan Undangan Negeri and Parliamentary levels. For we do not forget that the political parties, especially those in the BN ones, command the 3 Ms – money, party and government machinery, and the media.)

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For all the above reasons, we are more assured of achieving CAT (competent, accountable and transparent government) at the local government level. It is also at this level that we can get government to address concerns about local or regional languages and cultures as in, say, India.

Contrary to what the deputy prime minister opined, Malaysia is lagging behind in this drive towards democratisation. Decentralisation has become a major theme the world over. And part of this decentralisation process involves conducting local government elections.

Before the politicians who say no to local government elections start accusing those of us who want local government elections of ‘ape-ing the West’ again, they should remember India is one of those countries that regularly conduct local government elections – from New Delhi down to the panchayat/village levels. They have started reserving places for women to be represented, apart from people from the Scheduled Castes.

The Philippines, after Marcos was ousted, has also been fast-forwarding towards decentralisation. Under the Local Government Code 1991, the central government shares power, functions and revenue with the other levels of government. The Executive and Legislature at all levels, including at the local government level, are elected.

Indigenous People’s traditional councils have been recognised while claims to ancestral lands (something akin to our Native Customary Rights land) have been accommodated. At the local government level, women and civil society organisations are represented in development planning, schools and police boards. They also sit in bids and contract, or tender committees.

In Indonesia, following Reformasi, two new Laws (Laws No 22 and No 25) were passed in 1999 to facilitate decentralisation. New functions were given to provinces and to municipal and district local governments as in health care, primary education, public works, the arts, and natural resources management.

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Law No 25 also became the basis for dividing revenue to promote fiscal balance between the various levels of government. In turn, the above two laws provided the legal framework for elected local government (until very recently when the Opposition to newly elected president Djokowi cancelled the provision for conducting local government election).

It is in keeping with this global drive towards decentralisation and elected local government that The Hunger Project, based in New York, in partnership with the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), are currently developing a so-called Participatory Local Democracy Index to compare and measure the extent to which each country has promoted decentralisation of power, revenue and functions; the scope of popular participation in local governance; and how accountable and transparent local governments are. (Check out this exciting and important global development by doing an online search for The Hunger Project’s State of Participatory Democracy Report.)

In conclusion, do not allow the spats between the politicians to distract us from the more important and bigger picture, i.e. the need to decentralise and to push for elected local government. This is the real issue; not, who said what and whether others were consulted or not.

Be clear that holding local government elections will not lead to another May 13 incident! Rather, this drive to deepen our democracy will enhance greater competency, accountability and transparency. It is time we join this global drive towards participatory local democracy!

Dr Francis Loh
Aliran president
29 January 2015

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