Western envoys urge local gov’t polls

-say no valid justification for further delay

The four key western missions in Guyana yesterday called for the holding of local government elections, saying that there is no valid justification for further delay, which they said is responsible for a persistent drag on Guyana’s national development.

“Given the important and pressing need for effective local governance, we believe that 2013 should be a watershed moment for the people of Guyana — the year they can once again democratically elect their local government,” said the statement signed by US ambassador D. Brent Hardt, European Union ambassador Robert Kopecky, High Commissioner of the United Kingdom Andrew Ayre, and High Commissioner of Canada David Devine.

The joint statement, a mechanism used sparingly by the Western missions and only for critical issues, will be seen as particularly targeted at the government which has been in office unbroken since 1992 with local government elections having being held only once – in 1994. The government has blamed a number of factors for the non-holding of local government elections but critics have argued that it has been in charge of the process and it was always within its ability to hold the elections.

They point to a particularly frustrating period under former Local Government Minister Clinton Collymore where the reform process was stalemated and eventually abandoned.

“While Guyana has made great strides in strengthening its democracy, the continued absence of democratically elected and effective local government remains a persistent drag on Guyana’s national development and its attractiveness as an investment destination.  Only when people have transparent and accountable institutions at all levels of government — national, regional and local — will they have confidence in their future,” the joint statement said. It pointed out that Guyana has not held local government elections since 1994, and “the institutions and practice of local governance have withered on the vine since that time.”

“While the people of Guyana are familiar with the reasons offered for repeated delays in holding local government elections, there is no valid justification for further delay,” the diplomats said. “The key legislative foundations for local government reform have been tabled in the National Assembly and they are now before the Select Committee.  While there may be differences between the parties over the role and authority of the Minister of Local Government and over the control and scope of fiscal transfers, these issues can — and should — be resolved as a matter of urgency among all parties in the Select Committee,” the statement added.

When contacted by Stabroek News, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) said they had long advocated for local government elections to be held while the AFC welcomed the statement.

Minister of Local Government and Regional Development Ganga Persaud said that government is no longer responsible for the Bills. Since the resumption of the National Assembly, the Special Select Committee set up to examine the four bills that are expected to pave the way for the holding of the polls is yet to meet. APNU parliamentarian Basil Williams, who chairs the committee, had said that upon the resumption of the National Assembly, he would call the first meeting of the committee. The National Assembly has since resumed meeting.

‘Agreement’

Yesterday, the diplomats pointed out that during the 2011 national elections, one issue on which all political parties were in full agreement was the need to hold local government elections. They noted that all three of Guyana’s major political parties continue to publicly affirm their commitment to holding local government elections.

“The tangible benefits of local democracy go far beyond the act of casting a vote.  Throughout the world, countries and international agencies have come to recognize the vital importance of representative local government.  Effective and efficient public administration coupled with healthy local governance can drive development efforts.  Local government institutions bring government closer to the people, fostering greater inclusion, civic responsibility, empowerment and participation,” the statement said.

“In fact, local government offers one of the most important avenues for women and other groups typically under-represented to participate in the development of their communities and influence decision-making processes that directly affect their lives.  In communities throughout the world, a new generation of democratically-elected local leaders is creating change and sparking national development,” the statement added.

The diplomats said that the principles that should guide the Special Select Committee and the National Assembly in reviewing local government reform legislation have been amply articulated in a host of national and international assessments.  They pointed out that Guyana’s National Development Strategy of 2000, which was developed with the support of the Carter Center, called for “a local government system with greatly increased authority, with the power to formulate their own developmental plans and strategies, and with the legal right, within clearly specified boundaries, to enact local laws, and to collect specified rates and taxes, as approved by Central Government.”

Moreover, the statement pointed out, all three parties have articulated their principles and commitments to this end, around which there is clear agreement.  It recalled that in its 2011 manifesto, the PPP called for reinvigorating local government and pledged to “ensure, within one year of the 2011 general elections, that local government elections are held, bringing much needed reinvigoration into local government entities.”

“APNU likewise called for “the implementation of agreed Local Government Reforms and the holding of Local Government Elections.”  And the AFC affirmed that in its first year in office it would “implement local government reforms and hold local government elections”,” the statement said.

“In a political environment in which the people of Guyana and leading civic voices such as the Chamber of Commerce have called for greater national unity and cooperation, this consensus on local government reform and elections offers all parties a vital opportunity to work together in 2013 in the national interest,” the statement said. It added that “it is time for Guyana to seize its great potential by affording its citizens strong and effective local governance to build safer, more prosperous, and more democratic communities.”

‘As quickly as possible’

When contacted yesterday afternoon, Persaud said that he was unaware of the statement and could not comment on it. Questioned about the four bills before the select committee, he said that he has received no notification of any meeting as yet. Persaud had tabled the bills in the National Assembly and had signalled last month that government would not take them back to House if it does not chair the committee. However, Williams was subsequently elected as chairman.

Asked about his position now, the minister said that what was reported was “inaccurate.” He said that it was no longer in his hands. “I’m not responsible for the Bill as it stands now,” he said.

However, the minister had told Stabroek News last month that it has “never happened in the history of this country” that the government pilots a bill then sends it to select committee and does not chair the committee to examine it. “If someone takes the baton from you in the committee and if it is a not a minister, then that bill cannot be presented back to the parliament. Who is going to take it through? That would not be the work of the minister? That is a strange happening,” Persaud had said, while calling the development “significant.”

Pressed further yesterday about his position on the Bills and whether he would take it back to the House after it passes the select committee stage, he said: “That is a matter for the sub-committee to decide on.” After bills are taken back to the House, the responsible ministers receive them and pilot them through their second and third readings.

The four bills that are to be examined by the committee are the Local Government Commission Bill; the Local Government (Amendment Bill); the Fiscal Transfers Bill and the Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill.

APNU leader David Granger, when contacted, said that APNU has long been advocating for the holding of local government elections at the earliest opportunity. “There is no delay on our part,” he asserted. He noted that the Bills are at the select committee stage and APNU wants to see some changes in the legislation. “We have instructed our members on the special select committee to act as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that it has been 19 years since local government elections were held.

When contacted just after 5pm yesterday, Presidential Advisor on Governance Gail Teixeira told Stabroek News that she had not seen the document up to that point and could not comment on it. This was echoed by the PPP Executive Secretary Zulfikar Mustapha, who said that he would have to see the document before he can comment and this will not be until later in the week.

AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan said that his party welcomed the input of the diplomatic missions. “They are right on target in relation to making sure government understands the concerns for local democracy in Guyana,” he said. He noted that the missions are influential and said that he was glad that they had let their voices be heard “AFC will make an extra effort to ensure the legislative regime is approved and not to create any hurdle or impediment so as to create any delay,” Ramjattan said.

However, he was concerned that government will want to delay the elections for the maximum period “because government is not well-liked by the electorate out there.” He said that there is a dire need for local democracy and this could re-energise the communities.

President of the Guyana Association of Local Authorities Llewellyn John yesterday also welcomed the statement of the diplomatic missions.

The government and opposition parties had previously agreed to hold local government elections, which have been due since 1997, only upon completion of reforms. The bi-partisan Task Force on Local Government Reform, made up of representatives of the PPP/C and the then main opposition PNCR, had worked for eight years on completing the reform legislation. However, in 2009 the government abandoned the process in favour of the parliamentary review.

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