by Ralph Ramkarran
Once upon a time, during the colonial era, Guyana had a local government system that functioned. It emerged from the establishment of village democracy in estates purchased by freed slaves. It did not cover all of Guyana and its functions were limited. But legislation throughout the 20th century improved and expanded the local government and municipal systems. These became so well organized that there was a national body called the Guyana Association of Local Authorities, which had great influence in the early years of our modern political development.
Many might be tempted to attribute the destruction of Guyana’s local government system since 1970, or thereabouts, by the failure to hold no more than two elections since then, as a conspiracy between the main political parties. But it was not. Local governance was a victim of the perpetual struggle for dominance between the two main political parties. For both parties, but for different reasons and in different ways, local democracy became a humbug, and got in the way of the exercise of political dominance, so that after one try each, they discarded local government elections altogether.
Now things have changed. It became clear during the term of the last government that Guyana’s friends and donors will not be silent about local democracy and will make their voices heard in any future attempts to stifle the will of the local electorate. The reason is simple. Corruption increases when there is no accountability. There has been growing corruption since 2001 and inadequate efforts have been made to contain or stop it. The past governments’ reliance on unelected Interim Management Committees to replace the elected National Democratic Councils when these collapsed from age and infighting after many years had become gross and unacceptable, even among its own supporters. They delivered minimal services, if any, were unaccountable and were consumed by factional disputes. Hopefully, these elections have brought this era to a close.
It is not expected that there will be a large turnout for these elections. That would not be unusual. Local government elections do not attract the participation of as much of the electorate as national elections. Whatever the turnout, this should be no reason to devalue the mandate of the elected local representatives. They would have the capacity to influence local developments in a substantial way and much that is positive can emanate from local leaders and local bodies. Citizens must never make the mistake of assuming that because the majority of members of an NDC belongs to a party that is not supported by a section of the community or a particular person, that the NDC has no responsibility to that group or person. All NDCs, whatever their political complexion, are responsible to all the people within their communities. And the people must make their demands fearlessly and hold their elected officials to account. Hopefully, at some time soon, national leaders will make these positions clear.
These elections have three innovations that have their origins in the work of the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) in 1999-2000. The first is the mixed first past the post/proportional representation system. Prior to 2000 all elections were conducted exclusively under the proportional representation system. Upon the recommendations of the CRC that the local government electoral system should include an element of first past the post, so as to create a mixed system, the law was changed to accommodate individual candidates. It was also recommended by the CRC at that time that the national electoral system should also be changed, the framework being already provided by the Constitution. However, that has not happened.
The CRC recommended the appointment of the Local Government Commission, which is provided for by the Constitution, but which was never established. This body is intended to be independent and to be responsible for the appointment of local government officials. Without it, previous governments were free to make political appointments to local offices resulting in much controversy. After the recent change in government, most of the Regional Executive Officers appointed by the last government were dismissed and new appointments, some politically controversial, were made. Appointments made by the new Local Government Commission might not reduce the political squabbling immediately but hopefully a culture will develop over time whereby local government offices are professionalized and the system developed in such a way as to serve citizens across the board more effectively. Certainly, targeted training to this end will become possible.
The third recommendation was that a system be devised for the proportionate allocation of central government resources to NDCs. Hitherto the standard sum of $3 million was given as a central government grant to all NDCs regardless of their geographical sizes, locations or population. This recommendation resulted in the Fiscal Transfers Act, which institutionalizes transfers based on criteria which involves the sizes of populations. Local bodies also collect rates and can enact other income generating activities. The national budget also provides funds for development works countrywide from which local communities benefit.
It is hoped that local government elections will now become a permanent feature of our political landscape and that from it, democracy, accountability and development will all be expanded for the benefit of all Guyanese.