President Donald Ramotar’s statement at the press conference he held last Saturday was surprising in its candour, while at the same time raising questions that his party needs to answer. The directness of the President’s response to a question on local government elections also served to highlight that previous statements bandied about by other Cabinet members skirted the real issue.
President Ramotar said on Saturday: “This is something I don’t want. I would prefer to go to the local government elections, but I can’t shut my eyes to the political reality that exists and make a bland promise that I will go to local government elections tomorrow as I would have done had we had the majority in the parliament at this point in time, and we would not have been in this position at this point and time.”
Earlier this year, in February, Mr Clement Rohee, wearing the hat of the PPP General Secretary, had said that the Guyana Elections Commission was not ready to run off local government polls. On the heels of that statement, in early March, Minister in the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development Norman Whittaker had posited that Guyanese were not ready for local government elections. His excuse was that public education programmes were needed to prepare the electorate and that Gecom had a duty to conduct such programmes.
Gecom disagreed in two subsequent statements, asserting that it can be ready to run off the local polls but would need to be given the mandate by the Minister. Gecom advised too that public education would be undertaken during the preparation for the elections, but only after a date is signalled by the minister which would allow for the release of the necessary funds. On Tuesday last, Gecom restated its readiness to members of the private sector at a forum hosted by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In the midst of this, we have the President candidly stating that local government elections cannot be called “tomorrow as I would have done had we had the majority in parliament…” And in that statement lies the crux of the matter. The issue is not whether the Gecom is ready. It is not about whether the general public is educated enough. It is about power.
It must have been a quite shock to the PPP in 1994 when, riding high on its 1992 general elections victory and holding a majority in the House, it could not secure control of Georgetown. It must have needed liniment for the burn it received when it turned out that the winner was not its closest rival the PNC, but Hamilton Green’s cobbled-together party A Good and Green Guyana, which has since almost faded away to nothingness with two of its prominent members Odinga Lumumba and Kwame McCoy defecting to the PPP.
So is it a case of once bitten, twice shy? These are the facts: The ruling party has been in government since 1992 and has only run off local government elections once, in 1994. Between 1994 and 2011, when the joint opposition won the majority in parliament, there ought to have been five local government elections. None were held.
Instead, the government has presided over a rapidly deteriorating local government system in which minimal and in some cases no services are provided to citizens, not just in Georgetown, but around the entire country. Its response? A flexing of political muscle, replacing duly elected councils with interim management committees top heavy with politicos and a smattering of locals to make up the numbers.
The result is what can be referred to as an epic failure. None of these interim bodies have succeeded in turning things around. There is no model village, community or NDC that can be held up as a best practice. Instead, what has happened in the last 20 years is that a new learned behaviour developed, littering.
It has taken a massive and sustained effort, not by the government, not by any of our local leaders, but by the United States Embassy under Ambassador Brent Hardt to cut through the apathy and infuse pride with its ‘Guyana Shines’ project. Significantly, the move to have Guyana shine again has been taken up by our young people many of whom were born in the early nineties.
Local community clean-ups, however, can only solve a minute part of the problem. The larger issues, like maintaining drainage canals and outfalls, timely road repairs, proper zoning and parking, street lighting, the markets and vending among others can only be addressed effectively by properly functioning local government organs.
Contrary to what President Ramotar said, there is absolutely no need for the PPP to have “the majority in the parliament at this point in time” to hold local government elections. Such a stance ignores the needs of the people and panders to the fears of the party. It is to be abhorred.