Majority of citizens not ready for local polls by August 1 deadline -Whittaker

The vast majority of the populace is not prepared for the holding of local government polls by August 1st, according to Minister in the Ministry of Local Government Norman Whittaker, who says to go ahead would result in the waste of a lot of money.

Whittaker says that a lot more public awareness work has to be done so as to ensure that the public is knowledgeable and interested enough in the polls, which were last held in 1994.

This work is ongoing, the minister told Stabroek News, while also giving assurances that that he will give the order for local government elections when the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) says it is ready, and “when we are satisfied that the preparations are in place.”

Norman Whittaker
Norman Whittaker

The opposition recently used its majority in the National Assembly to pass an amendment that calls for the holding of the polls before August 1, 2014. Although government tabled the bill for the postponement of the polls to a date on or before December 1, 204, it did not support it as amended by the opposition.

Whittaker told Stabroek News that more public education is needed before he can give an order to hold local government elections. He said that if elections were to be held now, only about 30% of the population would respond. The minister says that Guyanese typically do not attach much significance to elections, even at the national level, and he expressed concern that local elections might be treated with even less regard.

Young people in particular, many of whom were not even born when the 1994 local government elections were held, know nothing of local government elections, he noted. As a result, he predicts a very low turnout if elections were to be held by August 1st, in keeping with the demands of the opposition parties.

Meanwhile, although Whittaker has been saying that he must await notice from Gecom to indicate its readiness to the ministry for local government elections before he determines a date, the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act 1990, Chapter 28:03 suggests otherwise.

Section 35 (1), of Part Three of the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act clearly reads: “An election shall be held on such day as the Minister may by order appoint.” Following the order, the laws state that the order must be published in the Gazette and a copy thereof published by the local authority to which it relates—Gecom, in this case.

Section 36 (1) further states: “If the Elections Commission is satisfied that the holding of an election on election day would be attended by danger or serious hardship, the Commission may by order postpone the election to a day specified in such order, which day shall then, for the purposes of this Part, be election day.”

36 (2) of the Act reads: “Where the Minister is satisfied, on the advice of the Elections Commission, that it is impracticable to comply with the provisions of this Act or the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act 1990 regarding the date for the holding of an election to elect members of a local democratic organ, he may, at any time by order, postpone such date to a date specified in the said order or to a date to be specified in a subsequent order, the postponed date being not later than forty-eight months from the date on which the election should be held, and every person who is a councillor, including the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, the Chairman or the Deputy Chairman, on the date on which the election should be held shall continue in, and discharge the function of, his office until his successor enters on the duties of his office.”

Each of the paragraphs referred to suggest it is the minister who must first name a date for local government elections, then wait on Gecom to say if the prescribed date is reasonable. Whittaker, however, maintains that he must wait on Gecom to state its readiness before he can name a date for local government elections.

Even if the matter were to be approached from the perspective of the minister, several Gecom officials have pointed out that the body can make all the needed preparations to hold local government elections within six months of receiving the relevant order from the Local Government Minister.

In a recent interview, Gecom spokesman Vishnu Persaud said the commission was in possession of a draft work plan for the conduct of local government elections, which puts the timeframe for the conduct of the elections at 180 days commencing from the announcement of a date identified by the minister.

Gecom has been officially mum on whether it thinks it can make the August 1st date.

Civil society bodies and western missions on Wednesday issued a joint statement pressing for these polls to be held.


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