In the 47 years of Guyana’s post independence history, Guyanese have had the opportunity only once, in 1994, of having freely elected our local leaders. Local government elections were held twice after 1966, once under the 28 year rule of the PNC in 1974 and once under the 21 year rule of the PPP in 1994.
One of Guyana’s great indigenous institutions was its system of local democracy. We did not invent it but it grew with the village system, which was developed after slavery by former slaves and their descendants. Later institutionalized by legislation, local authorities were training grounds for both local and national leaders. They together established the Guyana Association of Local Authorities known by its acronym, GALA. It was a powerful and respected body and influenced the development of policies. Llewelyn John, a practicing lawyer and politician and a former PNC Home Affairs Minister, emerged into national prominence from the local government system. So did Dalchand, a former PPP MP and a senior Party leader, who started his political life as a village leader and now lives in Canada.
The local government elections of 1974 were so blatantly fraudulent that they was prematurely terminated. By that time, however, the local government system had been reorganized with the introduction of Peoples’ Cooperative Units (PCUs), Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) and Regional Democratic Councils (RDCs). PCUs never caught on.
The extension of democracy to local communities led to the identification of accountable bodies responsible for local and regional services for the first time in decades. This led to great optimism and with increased spending on infrastructure and social services much development took place. At the suggestion of Cheddi Jagan, Community Development Councils (CDCs) were established all over Guyana. They exercised popular influence and monitored infrastructural works in local communities and local developments generally.
Local government elections have never been held again. There were no compelling reasons why at least five of the six due since 1994 could not have been held. In 2000 the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) made its report and recommended reforms to the local government system. This did not involve constitutional change but required agreement between the Government and Opposition on the details of the recommendations and legislative reforms to give effect to them. These discussions started about 2002 and ended in 2010 without consensus on many issues.
The PPP had offered to hold elections during the eight years of discussions under the existing system but the Opposition insisted that any elections must be held under the proposals recommended by the CRC, then under interminable negotiations. During this period local government suffered a slow demise. NDC members gradually dropped out and the NDCs’ lists became exhausted. The CDCs collapsed one after the other. Allegations of corruption multiplied. Scandal after scandal continued to be exposed in relation to local infrastructure works. No one remained to whom representation could be made by villagers. Local development stagnated.
After the Government terminated the talks with the Opposition in 2010, it introduced legislation which was passed encompassing the areas on which there was agreement as well as those areas which were in dispute. In the latter case the amendments reflected the positions of the Government. After the general elections of November 2011, the Government agreed to re-table the bills and refer them to a Select Committee. There was agreement and the four amended bills were passed unanimously. After an unprecedented three months at the Attorney General’s Chambers, the President finally signed three of them, claiming that the fourth one, which transferred certain powers of the Minister to the Local Government Council to be established, was unconstitutional.
Of course, there is nothing unconstitutional about the bill and, in any event, it is the courts and not the President or the Attorney General, which is the guardian of the constitution and the protector of the rights of citizens. This being well known, there can be only two reasons why the bill was not assented to. One is that the Government has belatedly decided that it cannot relinquish Ministerial control over the existence of local authorities. The other is that the Government does not want local government elections. It knows that the Opposition will not participate if all the bills have not been assented to as passed. This has been its consistent position.
The holding of local government elections was one event on the political calendar to look forward to. It would have arrested crumbling local governance and the corruption and incompetence that go along with it. The mere renewal of local democracy would have injected much hope and optimism in local communities. It is considered to be so important for progress that, early this year, even the American, British, Canadian and European heads of missions publicly called for local government elections by the end of this year which the President had already promised. They obviously understand quite well that local democracy is vital for Guyana’s development and more particularly, that the resources they invest in Guyana’s development will be unproductive unless disbursed and deployed in conditions of accountability.
Alas, local government elections became a victim first, of rigged elections and now, of gridlock. It has become as distant as that ‘pale blue dot’ – Guyana as seen from Saturn, the subject of SN’s Saturday’s editorial.