‘Snap poll budget’

Several commentators are calling Dr Ashni Singh’s recent magnum opus a ‘snap election budget,’ partly owing to its emphasis on the “individual taxpayer,” to use the words of one of them. Then there is too the not insubstantial allocation for Gecom, for which there is no accompanying breakdown to indicate exactly why such a sizeable sum is required.  Given the potential for another confrontation between government and opposition in last year’s mode – only this time with added complexities – it is hardly surprising that rumours are rife about a snap poll. Even if, for the sake of argument, that were indeed what is in the PPP’s mind, it is not at all clear to the ordinary observer exactly what hurdles might stand in the way of implementing such a decision.

The very least that can be said about it is that it would be utterly shameless to hold another national election so close on the heels of the last one before first holding local government polls; the latter must be the priority. However, there are indications that yet again the administration might be dragging its feet on the matter of autonomy for local government bodies, which potentially, at least, could make it a challenge to hold local elections in the not too distant future.

In our April 2 edition, we reported Mr Basil Williams, Chairman of the Select Committee which is looking at proposed local government legislation, as saying that progress was being made on the four bills concerned; this was confirmed as well by government representatives on the committee. However, what is happening at the moment is that the committee is dealing with the non-contentious issues first, so that the contentious ones do not hold up proceedings, and will return to problematic matters later when everything else is out of the way. It is certainly a sensible way of operating, although one fears that when eventually those sections on which consensus cannot be reached now are considered, there could be an impasse.

Some suggestion that this might be the case was revealed when Mr Williams said that government representatives had proposed there should be an office of the Regional Executive Officer in every Neighbourhood Democratic Council. The combined opposition, he went on to explain, opposed this on the grounds that the whole idea was to give local communities more autonomy. Certainly an REO office in every NDC would achieve quite the opposite of this. In fact the sticking points between the PNCR and the PPP/C during the nine weary years of the Joint Committee discussions on local government reform revolved in one way or another around this very issue.

Sometimes one wonders in what era the governing party believes it is living. Sometimes one wonders too why it is that in the teeth of all the evidence, it still believes that the more institutions and levers one controls, the more control one has. It is not so. The more one tries to control, the more people and things escape from or elude the grasp. In the modern world people will chafe under any kind of monolithic regimen, and discontent at various levels will make itself manifest, as the government surely does not need to be reminded.

Their problem seems to be, however, that they think that propaganda can persuade citizens to believe something which they otherwise would not believe, and that if there are other things those in government know will not be accepted by the public, they can keep these secret. It used to be said that knowledge (or information) is power, but in this society it is more a case of secrets are power.

As it is most of the electorate is deaf to the propaganda, the rhetoric and the polemic, or at least, they will listen only to that which chimes with what they want to hear. But it has no effect on the unconverted for whom it is primarily designed. As for the secrecy, in this information age eventually the truth has a way of bubbling to the surface. Of course, one of the stratagems is to keep matters secret for as long as possible, in the hope that when eventually the details do become public, it is too late for anything to be done because it is a fait accompli. Perhaps that was intention in the case of the scandalous radio frequency allocations in 2011, and the assumption was that even though the disclosure had to be made now, nothing much could be done about it ‒ although it must be said that that still remains to be seen.

As so many commentators have pointed out – and in the depth of their souls the higher echelons of the PPP must know it too – this mode of governance simply does not work. It did not work for the PNC and it cannot work now. In a society such as this, absolutist government, so to speak, as practised by one side or the other simply hardens attitudes, entrenches divisions and militates against compromise in areas where this is essential for the functioning and true development of the state.

There is plenty talk about inclusionary democracy, but little accord on exactly how that should work in practice. However, the first step in lifting the lid from the Guyanese steam kettle is greater democracy at the grass roots level. Let the central government loosen its iron grip on local democracy (it could begin now by calling a halt to its imposed IMCs and the reshuffling of overseers) and let the communities run their own affairs. If they fail – including in opposition areas – then the government has nothing to lose. If they succeed, then it will give citizens a vested interest in the local system, and afford them a feeling that they have some say in the affairs which impact on their immediate environment. Implementing policy does not require the central government to involve itself directly in every facet of society, and choke every move to independent expressions of ingenuity and creativity.

While progress on the legislative framework for local government lies ultimately in government hands, in the meantime the work of the relevant committee is held hostage to budget-related issues, and where this is concerned there is ample room for major mistakes on both sides of Parliament. While the general muddle surrounding the budget is being sorted out, one can only hope that the parties adopt rational stances, and do not get themselves cornered in cul-de-sacs on account of unnecessary intransigence.

Apart from anything else, if a budget gridlock indeed triggered a snap election, no one really knows exactly what the outcome would be, other than to say that the turn-out might be even lower than it was the last time. Both sides in Parliament have done themselves damage in one way or another in the eyes of the electorate, and no one of them can be guaranteed an overall majority.

It would pay the government and the opposition, therefore, when dealing with the budget to keep at the forefront of their minds that they should avoid sleepwalking into a situation which could put us into general election mode. The people of Guyana simply don’t want another national poll until one is constitutionally due. Local government elections, on the other hand, are another matter entirely.

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