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Directly Elected Mayors

A Step towards Democratic Urban Governance

Niraj Kumar ( teaches at the Development Management Institute, Patna.

The introduction of directly elected mayors has the potential to completely change not only the landscape of urban local body governance, but also the nature of citizens’ participation in the management of their cities. The benefits of the directly elected mayoral system and its influence on the dynamics of the existing political system are explored.

About 34% of India’s population is now living in urban areas (UN World Urbanization Prospect, 2018 report). Though the number of mega-sized urban clusters (with population > 50 lakh) has remained constant, the number of smaller urban clusters has been increasing rapidly over the years (Figure 1). These urban centres are now more “happening places” with greater investments and increased opportunities leading to sizeable migration from rural areas. However, such fast transformation has come with a myriad of problems of unplanned and unregulated expansion of urban boundaries, and mounting pressure on infrastructure and community resources resulting in poorer quality of life in these urban centres.

Among the many possible reforms, an efficient and inclusive institutional structure has the potential of changing the worsening conditions of urban centres. In India, municipalities and municipal corporations were created to manage day- to-day and future needs of the city centres; however, over a period of time, the municipal institutions lost the credibility to deliver services in an efficient manner (Nallathiga 2008). Although the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992, had recommended sweeping changes concerning the autonomy of the urban local bodies (ULBs), the promotion of decentralisation of power, and formation of appropriate structures and functions, unfortunately, it failed to see its real implementation at the field level. Local self-government is a state subject and states too were found lacking in taking proactive actions. Issues such as functional devolution to ULBs, strengthening their fiscal health and their comprehensive empowerment as a vibrant democratic unit of self-government are indeed central to the governance of cities (Jha 2018). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2000) listed solidarity (shared values and priorities of its community) and subsidiarity (local autonomy, decentralisation and keeping government close to the people) as the two basic underlying principles to make the metropolitan government more competitive and efficient.

Like any other organisation, the role of the leader is very crucial for the governance of ULBs. The leaders not only have their visions for their respective cities, but they also ensure that there is a well-oiled system in place which will help them to realise their visions. Jaime Lerner, an architect by profession, was a pioneer in introducing the world’s first bus rapid transit system in Curitiba (Brazil) after he was elected as the mayor of the city (Global Mass Transit 2009). Xavier Trias, after becoming the mayor of Barcelona in 2011, initiated the move towards crafting “Smart City Barcelona,” which catapulted Barcelona into one of the smartest cities in the world and made the city a pioneering centre for the internet of things industry (Adler 2016). There are many other examples of mayors bringing considerable changes and improvisation in the city’s governance because of their initiatives and leadership.

In India for all practical purposes, the municipal commissioner, a bureaucrat appointed by the state government, is the de facto head of the municipal body. Although the mayor is considered to be the political and executive head of the city, they hardly have any executive power. The current governance model of India’s urban bodies puts executive power in the hand of commissioners, and the power to extort, advise, warn and criticise in the hands of the elected representatives—the mayor, standing committee and other bodies of councillors (Jha 2018). A result of such an unusual arrangement is that often the elected representative ends up performing the role of the opposition, and where municipal commissioners are headstrong, situations of gridlock are not infrequent (Business Standard 2018 qtd in Jha 2018). Weaker mayoral systems leave a minimal role for the mayor in the shaping of city development, planning and operation, and they are subjugated to a titular position of a sycophant in political parties (Nallathiga 2008). Such structural governance shortcomings have resulted in the mismanagement of ULBs which in turn affect ordinary citizens every day. Reduced and less participation in municipal elections is an indication of citizen’s faith and attitude towards ULBs. The ULBs often witness lower turnout of voters than state- or national-level elections. Further, with the increasing emphasis on democratic decentralisation, and the need for multiple stakeholders’ participation in governance based on the review of extant literature, an attempt has been made to suggest an alternative model.

Need for Directly Elected Mayors

A civic leader to be successful has to work with different groups of stakeholders. Stakeholders may be from politics, executives (bureaucrats and other officials), civil society representatives, intellectuals, and those locals who command considerable respect in a given locality or among people of a given occupation. Hambleton (2011) had distinguished these stakeholders as political, managerial or professional, and community or business leaders. All of them play crucial roles and contribute in their own capacity. A leader of the ULB needs to work with
all the stakeholders simultaneously and should have authority and competency to get work done. Although, it is important to mention that all the stakeholders have different and unique expectations. Being elected representatives gives them the legitimate right to bring all stakeholders under the umbrella of formal governance and demands cooperation from all.

The Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) reported that city corporations see a frequent change in commissioners, so much so that often a commissioner’s tenure at a corporation is less than one year (Figure 2).

The uncertainty of the tenure and maximum level of control of the state make the nature of the commissioner’s performance, barring few exceptions, routine, rather than imaginative and visionary (Jha 2018). In contrast, an elected mayor with a fixed tenure can be innovative and may take decisions breaking the limitations of a state-appointed bureaucrat commissioner. There are examples from across the globe to suggest that mayors have made innovative decisions when given the opportunity and the freedom to do so (Adler 2016; Osumi and Osaki 2017).

The existing municipal governance structure turns the entire democratically elected councillor against the chief executive, a state-appointed bureaucrat. Such a relationship is fraught with severe consequences of non-corporation, mismanagement, continuous fight for hegemony and the most crucial loss of face of the ULB. It is expected that the direct election of the mayor will provide legitimacy to the voice of the mayor and they can put their voice more emphatically. Also, the realisation that the mayor is the democratically elected representative puts the onus on both commissioners and elected councillors to respect citizens’ mandate.

Further, it is said to be capable of addressing the perceived failures of the old committee system, including poor coordination, duplication of services, lengthy decision-making and wasted money and time (Fenwick and Elcock 2014). There is an implicit assumption that the local authorities needed an identifiable figurehead to engage with other actors involved in local governance. The strong mayor model with extensive executive power and as a directly elected chief executive for governance of cities is growing in popularity across the world (Jha 2018). The case of directly elected mayors has further been strengthened by relating it with place-based leadership or locality leadership in general (Hambleton 2011; Hambleton and Sweeting 2014).

Globalisation, technological revolution, faster urbanisation, and changes in lifestyle are putting new kinds of pressure on urban leadership (Swinney et al 2011). The shift from urban government to urban governance demands more dynamic, outward-looking, ready-to-introduce changes and a more participatory and inclusive leader. It has been found that common people perceive that the quality of leadership improves when the election of mayor is done directly.

Benefits of a Directly Elected Mayor

There have been some well-established approaches for studying local leadership (Kotter and Lawrence 1974; Svara 2009; Hambleton and Gross 2007). However, the framework suggested by Hambleton and Sweeting (2014) has been used extensively to study leadership in ULBs. The same framework with slight modifications has the following features.

Community empowerment and promotion of local leadership: The current system of electing leadership (indirect election of mayor) encourages a system of best among the equals from the elected councillors. It is quite obvious that councillors would prefer those whom they believe will not become too popular or will not grow too big and hence, mediocracy is preferred. Also, the election of the councillor is done by the voters of a given ward, which has a very limited number of voters, and voters of small constituencies usually vote based on many considerations that are too local and too individualistic rather than being only merit-based. Although one may argue that this is true for all elections, the result is more consequential in any local body’s election than it can be in parliamentary elections. It is in this context that direct election of the mayor seems more pertinent as it gives the opportunity to local leaders to focus on those issues that are essential for most of the citizens. Direct election of the mayor, which promotes strong visible leadership in cities, is an important source of recruitment of talent into public life and leadership development (Second Administrative Reforms Commission 2007).

Impact on institutional design of local governance: Due to the prerequisite of getting elected by the ward residents, the existing mayors focus more on the work in their ward as compared to the municipality/city as a whole. They are also less likely to strike a chord with the entire municipal area as such. Thus, the focus on governance remains concentrated to a specific ward or area, rather than being equitable for the entire civic area as such. The issues that are local and ward-specific may require actions across the ward boundary and holistic planning.

Direct election of the mayor is likely to improve leadership, and quality, speed, and the process of decision-making of mayors. It also provides authority and confidence to the mayors to keep the interest of the city on top (rather than bothering about fellow councillors). Introducing innovative approaches and bringing changes in the existing system become easier and faster. Direct election changes the role of the mayor from a leader of the council to the leader of the city. The mayoral initiative in England has generated facilitative local leadership, not because of the individual characteristics of mayors but because of the institutional design, that is, directly elected mayor system (Greasley and Stoker 2008).

The relationship between the politician and officers: The directly elected mayor is expected to tap the support of bureaucrats by presenting himself as a people’s representative of the city. The direct election provides the required legitimacy to the mayor to interact, demand, and get work executed in the best interest of the city. The nature of networked, urban governance means that collaboration between actors in city governance external to municipal bureaucracy is also necessary to achieve successful collective action. For example, to handle problems related to electricity, policing, and health, there are separate government entities, which do not fall under the administrative control of the municipality. In such a situation, only a powerful mayor (powerful mayor here represents an institution, not a person) can coordinate and negotiate for the city. There exists scope for the mayor to use his office and result-oriented attitude in the professional arena outside the city hall to achieve collaboration (Hambleton and Sweeting 2014). Initiatives taken by directly elected leaders, in all likelihood, are expected to get support from all the officials. No doubt, it will require mayors to play a proactive role in approaching all the stakeholders and bringing them on the table in the larger interest of the city at least in the beginning till a system is established.

It is natural that the increased stature of the mayor because of the direct election will be opposed by those who are going to be affected by this change in institutional governance. Most critical would be the councillors who will see this as further squeezing of their “power” and emergence of one more significant leader. Also, bureaucrats or executives who will face a democratically elected, widely accepted mayor with more political power will experience a change in power equilibrium. There are, however, international examples where mayors have taken all the political parties and important stakeholders into confidence in the decision-making process.

Increased responsibility and competency to deliver: Direct election of the mayor makes the leader accountable for their decision, action, and performance. Unlike the indirectly elected mayor who is dependent on the support of councillors, the directly elected mayor would be free to ask for help and support from the members of any group (political bureaucratic, civil society, technocrats, business person) without thinking too much to keep councillors happy. There are many examples from different countries in which directly elected mayors have
improved accountability, clarity and speed of decision-making (Jha 2018). In India, there are many examples of mukhiya (head of the rural local body) taking the lead and doing excellent work for their panchayats. When given the opportunity, direct election not only empowers the mayors and provides them the legitimate right to govern, but also brings responsibility for good governance and delivers the results as per citizens’ expectations. A direct election of mayors in the urban centres will ensure a sea change in the political equations at the local level and help launch a new generation of more charismatic leaders who can mobilise voters and usher in real changes in urban governance (Raghavan 2016).

Criticism of Direct Election

There have been many criticisms of the directly elected mayoral system as it is considered equivalent to a presidential system of governance. Moreover, it is argued, that when the country follows the ministerial or council system both at the central and state levels, why should we not follow the same system at the city level too? Also, it is said that the mayoral system restricts the flow of diverse ideas on governance as it limits the role of councillors. It is expected that the direct election will result in a more empowered and assertive mayor, and the elected councillors will feel losing some authority (Copus 2006). Increased workload of the mayor because of his new overarching role is considered as one of the major weaknesses. Critics further add that it is not only the volume of work but types of work and expertise expected that will make the functioning of elected mayors difficult. If some notable personalities like sports, film, literature celebrities fight the election and win, then, it will be argued that those who never worked and never knew the nuances of a political process and local governance will be given the responsibility to run and manage the city. It has also been reported that removal of the mayor if such need arises, will become difficult, as a directly elected mayor can be removed only by those who elect them.

It is quite possible that in the beginning there would be an opposition to such change by the councillors, bureaucrats and also from the office staff because any change in the existing system of governance will create some disruption and change in the power equation in the ULBs. Concerns of wrongdoing and corruption are also related to power concentration in one pair of hands. It is said that centralisation of power and corruption go hand in hand. However, this can also be argued that like the elected mayor, elected councillors or an indirectly elected leader can be corrupted. Jha (2018) reported that the directly elected model by its nature disallows diversity of ideas, and it is doubtful that a single individual would be so rich in experience and ideas that they would be able to size up complex social ethnic, economic, cultural and political diversity of the city.

A Plausible Model: The Outline

To be successful, a model needs to be “feasible,” that is, possible acceptance or least resistance by all the stakeholders, “in line of democratic decentralisation,” that is, more power to citizens and citizen- elected representatives, “effective,” that is, ability to bring sustainable changes faster, and “inclusive” which refers to having an approach in which all the major stakeholders have their respective roles and power to influence.

The model considers the mayor as the political and administrative head of the municipality. The mayor would be directly elected by the citizens of the city. The election of the mayor and also that of the councillors will be held simultaneously, and the tenure of the municipality would be of five years. A voter during the election will vote twice: one for the councillor and another for the mayor. The directly elected mayor can nominate another five to 10 eminent or reputed professionals as the councillors to the municipality. These councillors will have all rights and responsibilities of the councillors except that they cannot vote on any occasion. The directly elected mayor can be removed by a provision called the right to recall (RTR). To execute the process of RTR, a resolution supported by minimum two-thirds of the councillors would be required. If the mayor loses the poll of the RTR, the state will go for a repoll. However, if the mayor sustains the election and wins the poll, all the councillors who had signed the resolution would have to resign and fight the election again. Further, to give more power to the elected mayor, the elected mayor will be consulted while deciding about the municipal commissioner and other senior officials of the municipality.

Although the directly elected mayor system is becoming popular across the globe with few exceptions, in Indian cities the logic driving the adoption of the “strong mayor” model is even more emphatic (Jha 2018). It is important to mention that a private member’s bill was introduced in Parliament in 2016 seeking to amend the Constitution of India and provide, among other things, for a directly elected mayor (Tharoor 2016). In the suggested model the focus is on feasibility, democratic decentralisation, effectiveness, and inclusiveness. The suggested model, though not a revolutionary one as it does not recommend the complete transfer of power to the mayor, is undoubtedly a step towards democratic decentralisation. It is high time that we make an honest beginning towards a genuinely democratic and decentralised governance of urban areas.


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Updated On : 22nd Nov, 2019


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