Local government

The governing party is never short of rationalizations to explain why something which is required to be done, has not been done. And so it has been with local government elections. The Joint Task Force laboured for eight years on the legislative reforms under which the elections would be held, but whatever level of consensus had been painfully achieved during that period, was ultimately stalled during the time Mr Clinton Collymore was chairman of the Task Force. The impasse during that interlude was used as an excuse to arbitrarily move the process to Parliament. There the government used its majority to pass some of the legislation necessary, but without the input of the opposition at the select committee level because it said that the government had reneged on its agreement in relation to the bills.

At the bottom of it all, of course, is the reluctance of the governing party to release central government’s stranglehold on the local authorities, and institute a system which allows them reasonable autonomy. While in most other democratic countries the aim is to give the community some vested interest in their local representative body, and accord that body the powers and the finances necessary to discharge their functions, in this country the PPP/C is set on infecting local government with the virus of national politics. As has been said before, clearing garbage and cleaning canals, etc, is not about politics per se, and whoever sits on an NDC or a town council, whatever their political persuasion, will have to see that these things are done.

Nothing is more indicative of the bad faith of the PPP/C where local government is concerned than its moves last year to impose IMCs on various parts of the country, including opposition areas like Kwakwani where the residents left no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was not what they wanted. The IMCs, of course, are installed by the Minister of Local Government and controlled by him. However it is described, this form of government is neither local nor democratic.

As everyone is aware, the last local government elections were held in 1994, and the next were due after an interval of three years. Since then, however, they have been postponed annually, with the government apparently in no hurry to have them, more especially now with some of its IMCs in place. It found another potential excuse late last year, since the local government legislation is in the parliamentary select committee, and because of the ruling party’s minority status in the legislature it is no longer in a position to insist on chairing the committee. Minister of Local Government Ganga Persaud, who was adamant that he should be the chairman, gave some indication that he might not be prepared to steer the bills through Parliament as a consequence.

While previously, it was the government which was in charge of the local government election process at all stages, in terms of the current Parliament, the scheduling of meetings of the special select committee is now in the hands of the APNU chairman of that committee, Mr Basil Williams. If frequent and regular meetings are not called now that the National Assembly has resumed sittings, then that would spell further delays for which the government could not be held responsible.
The PPP/C has always assumed that what plays at home will also play in the international arena, but last week it discovered that this is not necessarily the case. On Wednesday the Ambassadors and High Commissioners of the US, UK, Canada and the European Union issued a joint statement on the holding of local government elections. “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,” the statement said. Since elections have not been held since 1994, the foreign representatives continued, “the institutions and practice of local governance have withered on the vine.”

The diplomats did not confine themselves to the matter of form, they also addressed the question of substance – ie some of the principles which should be reflected in the new legislation. After observing that “healthy” local governance can drive development efforts, they went on to say: “…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.”

In other words, central control and direction is not the road to the future. If facilitating the process at the select committee stage is in the hands of APNU, then the matter of legislative content is in the hands of the PPP/C, in so far as it has resisted progress on this front for years now. The statement from the heads of the named overseas missions produced a response from President Donald Ramotar on Friday, who said that the delay in the holding of polls was not because of a lack of desire on the part of the government. He had little else to say on the matter other than giving a recitation of why the elections had been postponed for so many years, and commenting that they couldn’t be held until the local government bills had been passed. He did permit himself the remark, “I don’t know what motivated them to do that,” referring to the joint statement from the heads of the American, British Canadian and European missions, going on to add, “I have my own views on that.”

It was no doubt a far more diplomatic response than his predecessor might have managed, but clearly the governing party would have been offended by it, and may well have regarded it as interference in the nation’s domestic affairs. Having said that, however, the international community has monitored our elections since 1992 at the government’s request in order to establish that they are free and fair, in addition to which, they have invested considerable sums in the past to facilitate national polls. If, therefore, in defiance of democratic and constitutional requirements, elections at the local level have not been held at all in the last eighteen years, the diplomats are not lacking the right to comment.

The governing party should wake up to reality and recognize that it cannot control every facet of life in this country; in fact, it is not even in its own interest to do so. If the word democracy means anything at all in Freedom House, it should be prepared to hold local government elections this year in a context where powers are devolved to the local level, and funds are transferred independently of the caprices of central government. It should want to do this, not because foreign diplomats have issued a statement, but because it is committed to genuine democracy, and finds it an affront that this is being denied people at the community level.

And as for APNU, the pace at which discussion on the bills proceeds is, for the moment, at any rate, in their hands. It too, through the chairman of the committee, has a responsibility to see that the people of Guyana at the local level enjoy the democracy which the constitution guarantees.

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