Prior to the announcement of the date for local government elections, there was speculation, particularly in Opposition circles, that the Government would find reasons not to hold the elections. It was believed that the Government had performed so badly that it would suffer significant losses and would not want to expose its flank, now that general elections are only two years away. The announcement in July by the Minister of Communities, Mr. Ronald Bulkan, that local government elections will be held on November 12 killed that speculation. The more significant news came later. It was reported that APNU and the AFC could not agree on a joint slate for the elections and would be going to the electorate separately. The long term viability of the coalition was put on the table. But observers welcomed the opportunity that it would give some indication of the relative strengths of the political parties, not by the number of seats they win, because of the element of the first past the post system in the elections, but by the number of votes that they obtain. Caution would have to be exercised in such assessments because of the expected low turnout, unless polls are conducted to determine the percentage turnout of supporters of each of the three contesting parties. Polls such as these complicated and are not conducted in Guyana.
The campaign has not met with great public enthusiasm. The coalition has suffered criticism from a poor economy, reports of corruption and bad governance for the Auditor General’s Report and the absence of President Granger, who has been receiving medical attention in Cuba over the past two weeks. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, known as a dynamic election campaigner while in the PPP, has had to concentrate in rejuvenating the flagging fortunes of the AFC, which has been receiving very small attendances at its public meetings. It might well be that these factors will result in an especially low turnout of the governing parties’ supporters and will suppress their overall results. PNC/PNCR/APNU supporters have traditionally stayed away from the polls since the 1979 Referendum when wishing to express their disapproval.
Local government elections are to be held on November 12. With it, the never-ending stream of suspicions emerged as the Government established new local government units and merged others. The Opposition argued that these were done to give an advantage to the Government and the Opposition, through one of its representatives, promptly launched legal proceedings. This event provided the explanation for the ‘disappearance’ of the Chief Elections Officer, Mr. Keith Lowenfield, on one of the most critical days of the elections process, namely, the day after the submission of lists, when corrections have to be made and defects rectified.
Against the background of the passage in the National Assembly of the Local Authorities (Election Amendment) Bill, not yet assented to by the President, which provides that local government elections be held by August, the Chairman of the Elections Commission, Dr. Steve Surujballi, announced that the Elections Commission is ready to ‘go into election mode’ as soon as the date for local government elections is fixed. This ends speculation about GECOM’s readiness. It also challenges the Government’s position on the holding of local government elections. Minister Rohee’s statement that GECOM is not ready is not tenable. Minister Whittaker’s view that the people are not ready has been an age old excuse for the withholding of democracy and lacks credibility.
APNU has seized the opportunity which opened up by GECOM’s announcement to call on the Government to fix a date for the elections. ‘The clock is ticking,’ said APNU’s Chair, David Granger.
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.