There has been no epiphany in Freedom House. No new thinking. No sudden revelation – or even gradual realization for that matter – that perhaps, just perhaps, a novel approach to the conduct of politics in this country might produce better results for the nation, for the government, and also for the PPP/C itself in the long run. Instead what we are witnessing is a recapitulation of the old, tired modus operandi aimed at reasserting a full grip on power. At the central level the electorate has been witnessing the government’s recourse to the courts to overturn decisions which fall fully within the purview of Parliament, but it is at the local level that the governing party’s determination to cling on to unfettered power is most in evidence.
There have, as everyone knows, been no local government elections since 1994. The reasons have been given an airing on many occasions, although it is reasonable to say that in the last few years most of the delays can be laid at the feet of the PPP/C which does not want to see independent local bodies backed by funds insulated from the caprices of central government; they want mechanisms in place which will guarantee their continued control, either direct or indirect. As everyone knows too, the legislation for new local government elections is mired in Parliament, so it is reasonable to conclude that nothing in that regard will be happening any time soon.
In the meantime, of course, there are myriad problems with many of the Neighbourhood Democratic Councils, although these are by no means of recent origin. However, it is at this point that the Ministry of Local Government has decided to embark on a series of ‘inquiries’ into the NDCs, to see if they should be replaced. The interventions are triggered by ‘petitions’ from members of the various communities, on the basis of which the Ministry of Local Government swans in, holds ‘consultations’ or an inquiry, and usually ends by setting up an IMC.
In the case of Matarkai NDC encompassing the communities of Matthews Ridge, Arakaka and Port Kaituma, for example, the ‘petitioners’ numbered twenty, and according to APNU Regional representative Richard Alleyne, the IMC was put in place without the councillors from Arakaka and Matthews Ridge being informed. We reported him as saying that no one from the council was present at the meeting to discuss the dissolution of the NDC “other than the PPP representatives who are now part of the IMC.” Mr Alleyne acknowledged that the NDC had had its difficulties, including lack of funds, but he said that this was because the regional authorities had been advised not to provide any funds.
Sometimes the government’s plans for a speedy installation have gone awry, particularly in opposition areas. Things did not go according to the formula in Kwakwani, for instance, and residents protested outside the premises where local government officers were meeting with a small number of persons requesting the NDC’s dissolution. They were outnumbered by far by the residents demonstrating outside, who could not even get into the meeting to register their dissent, because the office was too small to accommodate them. They made clear they wanted an improved NDC, not an IMC imposed by the central administration. On that occasion, the local government personnel retreated with nothing much accomplished, although it remains to be seen whether they will try again.
In Lethem too, there were protests over the government’s attempt to replace the Ireng/Sawariwau NDC with an IMC. On Friday, May 18, residents formed a picket line outside the NDC office to protest the plans for the installation there. From the placards on display it was clear that citizens of the community understood very well what was involved. “PPP want power through the back door,” read one, and “Elections put in de NDC and elections must put them out,” said another.
There have also been persistent allegations of undue influence over and in some cases, interference in the preparations for Amerindian Village Council elections which took place recently. There was the infamous case of Tobago Hill, whose former Toshao was castigated by the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs for speaking to this newspaper about a supposedly successful hassar project, where the fish in question couldn’t be seen. Needless to say, he did not retain his post in the recent village poll, despite the fact he was favoured to win, according to one resident. However, the resident went on to explain that the authorities “came down hard on him.”
And then there were the Parishara/Haiwa and Nappi Village Council elections in Region 9, where the villagers objected when the names of two persons were struck off the nominations list. One was subsequently reinstated, but not the other, since the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs through the Region 9 administration deemed him ineligible. We had also reported that in April, residents of Parishara had accused officials of the Regional Administration of manipulating the voters’ list for village elections. Subsequently some residents described the poll as a “one-sided affair” since mainly PPP/C supporters participated.
In Surama, close to the Iwokrama reserve, APNU MP Sydney Allicock, lost his position as Toshao, at least partly, if not wholly, because of misinformation conveyed to residents. In the first instance it was said that he was ineligible to stand because he was a parliamentarian, and in the second that he had been disqualified because he was not present on the day of the election. In a May 9 report we said that persons in the regional office in Lethem had related that the office had received complaints from villages across the region regarding their elections, and that these concerns were being addressed by the Amerindian Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Local Government.
There was too the case of Orealla on the Corentyne, where various improprieties have been alleged in the conduct of the Toshao and Councillors’ poll, and 69 residents have sent petitions to President Ramotar and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs. Among the accusations is that the process was contrary to the Amerindian Act of 2006, that the elections were not free and fair, that the election was audited by partisan regional officials, and that the auditing procedures in relation to village funds had been breached.
It is clear what the governing party is attempting to do. It is trying to reassert control starting from the bottom; if it has its own village councillors (or at least sympathetic or supine ones) in Amerindian areas, then they can influence the vote at a national level when general elections are called. And as is common knowledge, the indigenous vote is crucial to enable the PPP/C to secure a majority. Where other local government areas are concerned, it is presumably the intention to make funding available to IMCs filled with party members, so that in their own traditional areas they can be more responsive to their constituents, and rebuild the party’s relationship with them. No doubt they hope that this will break the link with the AFC in some Region 6 neighbourhoods, and persuade the apathetic to go back to the polling booth in local or general elections and mark their X next to the cup.
In non-PPP areas, presumably the idea is to show the residents how efficient the IMCs are in comparison with the opposition NDCs. Certainly that has always been the objective in the case of Georgetown, and presumably they are working their way around to the city. Earlier this year Ms Teixeira, for example, went on record as saying that the capital needed an IMC.
In his independence speech President Ramotar told the nation that the government planned to revive village economies countrywide. He is certainly not wrong about them being in need of revival, but what are citizens supposed to think when this is being done not via a democratic route and a reinvigorated push in concert with the opposition for local government elections, but by the autocratic imposition of IMCs filled with their people?
Just who do they think will subscribe to this fiction of masses of people all over the country demanding to be governed at a local level by arbitrary bodies consisting of party aficionados who are answerable to no one but the government and/or Freedom House? It will simply be seen as another nail in the coffin of the PPP/C’s much vaunted democratic credentials. In the end, they are as determined to hang onto power as Forbes Burnham was, and like him, they are becoming less and less fastidious about how they achieve that end.
They have a more fundamental problem with this IMC strategy, however, and it is one which has been adverted to before in these columns: Sycophants are easy to find, but competent sycophants are very thin on the ground. One might have thought that after nearly two decades in office it might have occurred to them that control and efficiency – let alone good governance – are not synonymous.