Tomorrow Guyanese participate in their second local government election in two years—the first time in fifty years that there would be consecutive elections of this type. The PNC government of that time discontinued them in 1970 and the PPP government of recent times discontinued them in 1994. This current coalition government should be commended for keeping its promise not to repeat those transgressions.
One sincerely hopes that future governments do not turn back this process—after all, local democracy is as pivotal to democratic advance as other forms of democracy. It is at that basic level that citizens come closest to direct democracy, which, for me, is the most effective form of democracy.
Having said the above, I still venture to argue that we should not be too quick to congratulate ourselves. I strongly believe that it is time that we move beyond the formal arrangements to a more substantive local democracy. The basic question is this—how has the holding of local government elections led to improved democratic outcomes?
In other words, have there been any substantive changes in local governance since the return of LGE in 2016? The answer to that question would determine whether the Coalition should view the holding of the elections as a major accomplishment.
From all indications, the answer has to be a resounding no. The crisis that has continued to haunt the Georgetown City Council is perhaps the most vivid manifestation that the democratic form (holding elections) has not yielded democratic outcomes. While the Georgetown crisis is well documented, similar problems plague Regional Democratic Councils and Neighbourhood Democratic Councils throughout the country.
We face a crisis of democracy, whereby local councils are not accountable to the local communities. This is an inevitable outcome, as the councillors are not chosen by the communities. We have a Local Government system that is local in name only—candidates are chosen and voter preferences are driven by the national political parties. So long as political parties continue to monopolize the process, accountability to the communities and the issues, concerns, preferences and problems of the communities would be undermined or totally ignored.
This situation would not cease until the political parties agree to constitutional reform aimed at decreasing the role of parties and increasing the role of local individuals and groups. It would be impossible to remove parties from the process, but something must be done to remove central party direction from local affairs. It is not that party members should not contest LGE, but they should not do so as party representatives chosen by the party. Such a situation merely transfers the national party rivalry to local government, which in turn ensures that community concerns are ignored.
So where do the parties stand on this issue? The WPA has long declared that it would prefer political parties to play a minimal role in the process. In the few instances where WPA members held local government seats, they functioned not as WPA representatives but as representatives of the communities that elected them. While they kept the party abreast of their work, at no time did the party instruct them on how to do their jobs. The outgoing chairman of the Foulis-Buxton NDC is a well-known WPA member, but he did not face the electorate as WPA, nor did he govern as WPA. That is the model that I think should be adopted by local councillors.
The PNC, two decades ago, took a similar position to the one outlined above, and there are still some active PNC leaders who currently hold that view. But the current governmental leadership of the party has moved away from that position—it has situated the PNC in the heart of the process.
The PPP, guided by its ideology of ethno-political dominance, has never embraced the WPA-type position—it treats the LGE in the same way it does general elections. The AFC never articulated an approach one way or the other, but during the 2016 LGE, it followed the PNC lead and attacked its own Chairman who favoured a non-party approach.
I strongly believe that as a start we should pursue legislation that limits political parties to the at-large seats on the various councils, which should constitute no more than 20% of the total seats. This would leave the constituency representation to local individuals and groups. I would also move towards the return of Village Councils. The NDC’s are not local enough. Maybe, there is a case for keeping them, but not as substitutes for Village Councils.
However, in the absence of real local governance, not only do we have poor governance, but there is little local interest in the process. And this feeds the unaccountability on the part of councillors. It is well known that corruption is rife–councillors use their elected positions to obtain contracts for local works. Citizens complain, but turn a blind eye out of fear of offending the party or because they benefit in some small way.
So, tomorrow Guyanese are really going to vote in a mini-general election. The cadre of independent candidates has shrunk—some of them have joined the parties’ slates this time around. The political parties are bullish about their chances. For the PPP, the election is definitely a dress rehearsal for the 2020 general election. And because it has framed it as such, the PNC and AFC have to follow suit.
My sense is that the PNC would rather not follow that script, but it has little choice now—boat done gone a falls. The AFC would have been better off staying out of the election, but the logic of its post-2015 politics has taken them into the fray.
My sense is that the PPP would bring out its base to the polls in larger numbers than the PNC and would win the popular vote. The PNC would have a hard time getting its base to the polls. If the turnout by the armed forces is anything to go by, my prediction seems to be on track. If I were the PNC and AFC, I would be concerned about 2020. If they intend to go to the 2020 election as a coalition and this is a dress rehearsal for that election, why on earth are they fighting separately?
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.news. Send comments to [email protected]
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