Undercutting the goals of local democracy

Historically, never mind the lip service paid to it, local democratic elections have been a rarity in Guyana: 1959 then 1970, 1994 and finally 2016. This year it will, therefore, be the first time in decades that consecutive elections are being held at the legally appointed time, and the government should be commended for this. However, holding local elections at the prescribed time is only one aspect of any democratic process and an important negative consequence has resulted from it. Regardless of stated intentions to make local democracy relatively independent of the national political parties, given our existing political schisms, as the national political parties seek to utilise them as barometers of national electoral support, frequent elections bring the usual national political divisiveness to the local level.

Many had hoped that local councils would have engaged in self-management that would contribute to healing Guyana’s national ethnic divisiveness, but such has not been the case and if the government proceeds along its current path, it will never be the case. Another important element in national or local democratic process is redistricting: the creation or adjustment of voting districts. Wherever this process takes place, political quarrels ensue and unless they are done transparently and in keeping with international best practices, redistricting will lead to allegations of gerrymandering and political disassociation as is now the case in Guyana,. 

Best practices suggest that elections conducted on the basis of equal suffrage require equality of voting power: in principle no vote should carry disproportionately more weight than another and this usually requires periodic redistricting. It also demands that there should be ‘a high degree of public participation in the process’, which ‘should be reviewed sufficiently in advance of elections in order to minimize the effect of new boundaries on the election results and to avoid instability and voter confusion and disappointment’ (https://www.osce.org/odihr/ elections/16859?download=true). As a practical example of how these matters are best done in 2008, after some three decades, India completed a national redistricting process.

An independent (non-political) three member delimitation commission comprising a former Supreme Court judge, the Chief Elections Commissioner of India and the State Election Commissioner of the state concerned was established to carry out this process. Both national and local political participation is important so ten elected representatives (five from the state legislature and five from the national parliament) were appointed associate non-voting members to advise the commission. The commission also consulted various district officials before preparing a detailed draft proposal with the proposed new boundaries. ‘This draft proposal was widely published, public comments are invited, and public sittings in one or more places were held to hear the view of the public. Political parties in the state scrutinized these proposals and submitted their views for consideration, often proposing new boundaries for certain constituencies. After taking all these views into account, final reports were published for each state, all of which were approved by the President of India in August 2008, and came into effect in subsequent elections’ (https://www.isid.ac.in/~pu/conference/dec_09_conf /Papers /LakshmiIyer.pdf).

‘The writers of the above article stated ‘Our results suggest that a politically neutral redistricting process can be implemented by a non-political body with a transparent and inclusive process.’ Commonsense suggests that no such process could be expected in the manipulative and acrimonious political context of Guyana where it was not even possible to find a mutually acceptable chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission. Nevertheless, redistricting must be built on a significant level of consensus if elections are to be considered free and fair and local government entities considered authentic. Sadly, what has recently taken place in Guyana cannot be properly defined as transparent and democratic. Not surprising then, that the opposition has been up in arms, accusing the government of damaging the local democratic process by acting without proper consultation. According to it, the government is involved in a blatant effort to gerrymander the local constituencies to enhance its support and undermine that of the opposition at the upcoming elections.

Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan, within whose remit redistricting is, has made a spirited but strange response to the opposition’s claims. The minister said that ‘the exercise of rebalancing the size of some councils was done pursuant to sections 5 and 12 of the Local Democratic Organs Act Chapter 28:09 which specifically states that the Minister may by Order provide for, among other things, the composition and constitution of each local democratic organ’. And, ‘Notwithstanding the soundness of this exercise in law, it was not done capriciously. … (but) was duly guided by relevant considerations such as the demographics of these areas.’ The hollowness of the opposition’s claim is ‘exposed by the reality that it was this administration that restored local democracy after a hiatus of two decades and aims to fortify the gains with the first holding of consecutive LGEs as legally due in Guyana’s post-independent history.’

No one would deny that after decades of demographic changes and the introduction of a mixed electoral system based on proportional representation and first-past-the-post voting arrangements, etc rebalancing will be necessary, but as we have seen above, following the ‘letter of the law’ could only be one aspect of a process that demanded widespread consultation to build a national consensus. Let us put aside the minister’s apparent contention that somehow following the law afforded him the opportunity to be whimsical, since when can the fact that one reestablished a system be sufficient proof that one does not intend to manipulate it in one’s interest?! Are these not the same people who in opposition promised to depoliticize the appointment of regional executive officers but upon winning the 2015 elections immediately proceeded to do so to strengthen their foothold in the regional democratic system?!

 The fundamental concern is the absence of proper consultation and consensus, and this cannot be successfully answered by a response that suggests that the minister could act unilaterally because he represents the state, which is more universal that the locality. In this regard he said, ‘Article 12 of our Supreme Law clearly underscores not only the importance of local government to the organisation of the State but the entitlement of each Guyanese to participate in the management and development of their community.’ It appears to me that Article 12 suggests the need for more and not less consultation. The absence of consultations cannot likewise be answered by resort to subjective, randomized, unstructured responses and requests: ‘the activation of the eight (8) new NDCs is as a direct result of the pleas of residents in those areas for greater representation. Residents bemoaned the lack of representation by their Regional Democratic Council (RDC) on issues that affect their communities!’  Similarly, pointing to single associated consultative event will not do: ‘it was through meaningful consultation that the new township of Mahdia, … excludes these villages as is the expressed desire of their respective Village Councils!’

As the recent Caribbean Court of Justice decision in the Guyana Sugar Corporation suggests, adequate consultation is a human right and in political matters like redistricting, it is indispensable. In not properly consulting, the minister lost an important opportunity to advance local democracy and has opened the door to accusations that he and his party have utilised the process to their advantage. Under British colonial rule of the 1950s and 1960s, the PPP was the victim of massive gerrymandering by the colonial powers in the interest of the PNC and its associates and when the minister’s current action is associated with other suspect elections-related behaviour, the opposition’s concerns can hardly be defined as ‘misguided fixation on winning.’

Indeed, the minister tells us that one of his party’s ‘main focuses at this juncture is increasing community engagement, involvement and electoral participation in LG via the medium of public education and awareness’, but in proceeding without proper consultations, without giving the populace in the given areas the opportunity to help to design their communities,  it matters not how much he urges all Guyanese ‘to seize their constitutional right to manage and develop their community’. He has already undercut any hope of his goal being achieved in a timely fashion.

henryjeffrey@yahoo.com

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