Local gov’t polls not a priority for majority of citizens – Whittaker

Minister of Local Government Norman Whittaker says the majority of Guyanese do not see local government polls as a priority, the latest in a series of varied reasons given by senior administration officials for not convening these elections.

During an interview with Stabroek News on Tuesday, Whittaker noted the importance of the elections but said he is sure that if most Guyanese were asked to list their top ten priorities, it would not make the top seven. The minister is convinced that the majority of Guyanese are more focused on having bread and butter issues addressed and cleaning up their environments.

To this end, he said the ministry continues to seek to improve the quality of life of Guyanese to enable them to achieve more and enrich local development. He did admit though, that the issue of the elections is topical and is often the focus of discussions when the ministry meets with communities across the country.

But Whittaker said that not all calls for the elections are genuinely aimed at ensuring that the constitutionally required polls, which have not been held in 20 years, are held. He believes that some sections of society are calling for the elections to bring attention to and therefore advertise themselves to their own selfish ends. Others, he added, are using the fact that local government elections are outstanding only as a platform to launch attacks at the executive government. Only a “small group” of those calling for elections actually want it as well as other forms of development, Whittaker asserted. He emphasised that the mechanisms for the elections to be held are still being worked out.

Local government elections have not been held in Guyana since 1994, although Guyana’s constitution calls for such elections every three years. Every year since 1997, the National Assembly has passed the Local Authorities (Elections Amendment) Bill, which legally postpones the elections. Government attempted to pass a similar bill earlier this year as it sought to postpone the elections until December 31st 2014 or a date before. The opposition, arguing that the polls have been postponed long enough, amended the bill to require that they be held on or before August 1st, and then used their superior numbers to pass the bill in the face of government’s opposition.

As government was not in support of the amendment, after it was passed it languished in the office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel (CPC) in the Attorney General’s Chambers for months before it was sent to President Donald Ramotar, who eventually declined on June 2nd, 2014 to affix his signature on the grounds that the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) had publicly declared that it was impractical to hold local government elections on or before August 1. Had the bill been swiftly assented to by the President, elections could have been possible by August 1st based on Gecom’s work plan. After the bill was passed in February, the National Assembly’s staff had sent the bill in the first instance directly to the president in an effort to eliminate the delay experienced in the past getting legislation to his desk for speedy action. However, the bill was thereafter sent to Attorney General Anil Nandlall’s Chambers since, despite arguments to the contrary, he maintains that he must study such legislation before advising the president on what decision to make. The opposition and others continue to challenge this practice, since the Attorney General’s Chambers is usually involved in the drafting of the legislation in the first place.

Currently there is no legislation postponing local government elections and observers have said that government is in unconstitutional waters.

Gecom Commissioner Vincent Alexander has suggested that the president should have signed the legislation passed by the National Assembly and allowed Gecom, based on its readiness, to decide whether the August 1st date was practical. Alexander suggested that the president intentionally waited until the last possible moment to say he would not sign the bill because of Gecom’s inability to make the necessary preparations.

Observers say that once the president had signified his non-assent, it behoved the government to immediately bring a new bill.

Meanwhile, the debate on Gecom’s readiness continues. Voices from the government and the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) commissioners on the elections body have declared that much more is required before readiness for local government elections can be confirmed. However, this has been denied by Gecom Chairman Dr. Steve Surujbally, who says the commission is ready for local elections.

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