If there were a single policy initiative that would most serve to transform our racially divisive electoral dynamics into a competitive, issue-based political culture, the revival of local government institutions by way of holding local government elections and imbuing these organs with sufficient autonomy to function effectively, would be it.
For starters, it would unlock the tremendous leadership potential reposed in our communities, which would indubitably augur well for national politics as well. Through participation on city and neighbourhood councils, emerging leaders have a chance to hone their administrative skills, gain valuable political experience and demonstrate to the national electorate what they are capable of leadership-wise. The rise of businessman Joko Widodo, a relative political outsider, to presidential frontrunner status in Indonesian politics is widely credited to his administrative successes at the local government levels where he served as Mayor of the city of Surakarta and is the incumbent Governor of the province of Jakarta. The same could be said for Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, who was elected to the Premiership of that country on the back of his strong track record in governing the state.
Functioning local government institutions can widen the leadership pool because they deepen citizen participation in political decision making through incentivizing citizens by giving them an opportunity to influence decisions the outcome of which, so to speak, “hit closer to home”. Further, for the relatively apolitical and technocratic, local government provides an avenue for political involvement other than that offered by mainstream political parties which are, more often than not, ideological echo chambers characterized by group think and low levels of intra party democracy. Independent candidates such as businessmen, religious and civic leaders, and professionals, will, in a scenario where local government exists, have greater scope to partake in public service and break the de facto monopoly on political decision making held by a cadre of ‘career politicians’.
In addition to making politics more competitive, local government revival can make electoral contests more issue based by weakening racial patterns of voting at its core: the grassroots. For instance, in ethnically homogeneous districts, a candidate’s race can hardly be a determining factor in a scenario where several candidates from the ethnic group are competing against each other. Even in mixed communities, where close knit dynamics characteristic of communities in Guyana prevail, the ethnic mistrust – which defines electoral contests nationally – may not obtain on a local level. In Trinidad and Tobago – where the demographics are similar though, admittedly, the historical context isn’t – legislator, Jack Warner, defected from the UNC, a party which historically draws its support from Indo-Trinidadians, and in a subsequent by-election in his largely Indo-Trinidadian and UNC heartland district of Chaguanas West, the Afro-Trinidadian recaptured his seat in a crushing landslide.
Granted, the potentially transformative effects vibrant local government can have on our acrimonious political culture will not be realized immediately. It will take years, but we are already twenty years overdue for starting. What are we waiting for? On behalf of our fellow residents in the villages on the West Coast of Demerara, we declare: Everyone is ready.
Saieed I. Khalil