Local govt elections can wait

The Sun
SHOULD an election promise be kept if there are questions and uncertainties? More specifically, should Penang and Selangor state governments hold local government elections that the DAP and PKR promised during the 2008 general election campaign? There are no simple answers.
The Local Government Act (LGA) 1976 provides for only appointed councillors and presidents or mayors. As such, some observers, including leading legal minds, believe that state governments cannot hold local elections under existing laws.
However, there are also those, including leaders of non-governmental organisations, who assert that state governments can waive certain sections of the LGA and conduct local elections using the Local Government Election Act of 1960 since it is still in the statute books and was even revised until 1991. They also hold that this can be done even though it is against the decision of the National Council for Local Government, a body created by the Federal Constitution to ensure uniformity in matters related to local authorities.
For them, Penang and Selangor must hold local elections not only to keep the promise of the leaders but also to ensure that the councillors and mayors or presidents are accountable to the ratepayers.
As a democratic country, governments, including local authorities, must be elected by the people. But it is also prudent to see the realities. Legality aside, it is also important to take cognisance of the logistics of holding local elections under existing conditions.
Who or which agency will conduct the elections? It is almost certain that the Election Commission would not hold local elections unless Parliament amends the LGA and lifts the suspension of local government elections.
Can a state government create an agency or appoint an NGO or firm to conduct local elections? Can this body use the official electoral roll? Should it prepare its own electoral roll?
Also, will the police cooperate to provide security or issue permits to hold election campaigns? Will school principals allow their premises to be used as polling stations and counting venues?
Will the Barisan Nasional and other political parties take part? If they do not take part, would the results be credible? How much would it cost to hold local elections? There are two local councils in Penang and 12 in Selangor.
It is clear that without the assistance and cooperation of commissions established by the Parliament and agencies under the federal government, it might be near impossible to conduct a fair election. Indeed, considering the amount of money to be spent and emotional excitement in election campaigns, it could be a disservice to society to hold local government elections without the full support of all government machineries.
It is also a fallacy that only the most hard-working and best candidates win elections. The recent outbursts and antics of some elected representatives are clear testimonies that sometimes voters do make bad choices.
The reality is that many municipal issues like urban crime, lack of cleanliness, sub-standard municipal infrastructure, incompatible development and lack of facilities for pedestrians and senior citizens have no relationship with appointed or elected councillors and mayors or presidents.
It is wrong to assume that appointed municipal leaders are not committed to serving the people. Most of them are also very hard-working. The real problem is that the local authorities are not able to meet the challenges of rapid urban growth and increasingly high expectation of Malaysians. Local government is in need of an overhaul.
The federal government should act. Unfortunately, the Housing and Local Government Ministry has not shown serious interest or concern in improving the workings of the local councils. But this does not mean the state governments cannot initiate changes in areas such as the choice of mayors or presidents and councillors, non-interference in the workings of the councils, municipal finance and setting of a clear line of accountability.
The challenge is enormous. The needs and wants of the ratepayers are diverse, often made more complicated by leaders who make use of religion or racial sentiments to champion their personal agenda.
Since there are serious questions about legality and logistics, it is not advisable for Penang and Selangor to hold local government elections. A more fruitful use of limited resources and time is to tackle problems that the ratepayers are facing and transform the urban areas into notable livable cities.
Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: [email protected].