Continuing to urge the holding of long overdue local government elections, United States Ambassador to Guyana Brent Hardt on Monday suggested that the polls would not be called unless more people demand them and he invoked the name of PPP founder Dr Cheddi Jagan in his appeal.
Speaking at the closing ceremony for Blue CAPS’ Building Communities through Leadership Training and Service programme at Duke Lodge, Kingston, in Georgetown on Monday, the outgoing US Ambassador restated the case for the holding of the polls, and flayed a plethora of excuses that have been offered by the President and the ruling party.
“We are delighted that we are now seeing civil society in the lead, demanding the elections. And let me be clear, you will need to continue doing so and doing so with persistence. It appears unfortunately that local government elections will not be called unless the people of Guyana demand them—demand their constitutional right—and raise their voices in even greater numbers,” he said.
Hardt, who has incurred the wrath of senior government and party officials during his tour of duty for his outspokenness, also highlighted what he called a “fundamental structural flaw” with a system in which elections that are constitutionally and legally required are “perpetually delayed at the whim” of the executive.
He noted that among the “expanding array of excuses” for not holding the elections has been the suggestion that there may be a need for a national election. However, he dismissed this notion and pointed out that by not even setting a date the government keeps local government elections off in the elusive distant horizon. “This purposeful delay after 20 years without elections is, it bears repeating, contrary to the constitution and laws of Guyana,” he added.
Local government elections, last held in 1994, have been constitutionally due to be held since 1997.
President Donald Ramotar, the ambassador also said, has correctly cast himself as the defender of the constitution. “But he cannot be an inconsistent defender of the constitution—ignoring the constitution’s very clear requirement to hold local government elections, and for that matter, to return bills to parliament no more than 21 days after they are sent to him,” he said.
On this latter point, Hardt said that in rejecting the Local Government Elections Bill, which the opposition had amended to set August 1 as the date for the polls, the president’s excuse stemmed from his failure to abide by the constitutional deadline for the return of bills to parliament. “He advised parliament that he did not assent “because Gecom has publicly declared that it is impractical to hold local government elections on or before August 1.” Of course, had the president assented within the constitutionally required 21 day time limit, there would have been ample time to meet this schedule. So essentially, he is saying, ‘I have delayed the bill long enough that the time frame in the bill is no longer adequate,’” he said.
Hardt noted too that the president recently said that he would have called elections if his government had the majority in the National Assembly. To this, the ambassador said the constitution does not say elections every three years except when the executive does not have a majority. “It says every three years,” he noted, before adding that PPP General Secretary Clement Rohee’s suggestion that the people are not in the mood for the elections also ignores the legal requirement.
Hardt added that it was noteworthy that in the midst of the attempted justifications for the delay in holding the elections, the president recently called City Hall a “disaster” and had lamented that there is so much to be done around the city that is not being done. He then questioned why the president would not wish to hold the elections to create democratic accountability within the city. “The president has said that “citizens should raise their voices a bit more as far as that is concerned.” But citizens are raising their voices. They are saying they want local government elections to address the situation. They want to raise their votes, but only he can give them that opportunity. And it’s past time for him to do that,” he said.
He also noted the leadership by Blue CAPS in calling for the polls as well as support from media entities such as Stabroek News and the Private Sector Commission and the Georgetown Chamber.
Explaining his interest in seeing the elections being held, Ambassador Hardt reiterated the point that he sees it as a “genuinely transformative issue” for Guyana. “Local communities need freedom, autonomy, and the ability to explore ways to develop themselves,” he argued. “People face all kinds of local challenges and they want workable solutions. Guyanese are innovative and creative but they need the opportunity to cultivate their talents on the local level. Central control has choked off local creativity and initiative for too long. This has in turn led to a disconnect between people and governance—a problem exacerbated by the parliamentary list system,” he further argued.
Hardt added “In the face of all this, I still believe that President Ramotar has a tremendous opportunity to make a historic contribution to Guyana’s political development by being the President who restores elected local governance to Guyana – a longstanding national goal and something that PPP founder Cheddi Jagan fervently believed in”.
Clinton Urling, Founder of Blue CAPS, also joined the ambassador in the call for local government elections. Urling said not having local government elections for the past 20 years has had an impact on communities throughout Guyana. However, he said Blue CAPS does not intend to focus on local government elections exclusively as it moves forward. He explained that the decision to focus on the issue was born because youths cannot see any opportunities in terms of leading their own communities because of the way the system has been over the years.