October 1, 2016

Local government: last lap

Local Government Elections (LGE) are only three days away, but it does appear that there is a great deal of apathy in the air and on the ground. If the Disciplined Forces vote that took place one week ago is any guide, the turnout is going to be very bleak. While this is very unfortunate in light of the long, drawn-out struggle to return LGE to the national calendar as part of our democratic development, the long hiatus after the last election in 1994 has made the elections into an unknown quality that has both citizens and candidates quite nebulous in their expectations.

In the last month and a half, GECOM has done an excellent job in the local press of publishing information on and about the elections. The problem is most citizens – especially rural ones comprising the vast majority of the LGE constituencies – do not read the newspapers. Knowledge of the traditional local government operations have atrophied in the last 22 years with misuse and the new laws that are supposed to rejuvenate the field have not percolated into the psyche of the citizenry.

After years of negotiations in the bipartisan Special Select Committee on Local Government, three sections of their submitted legislation were passed and assented to by then President Donald Ramotar in 2013 under the 10th Parliament – the Fiscal Transfer Act, the Municipal and District Council Amendment Act, and the Local Government Commission Act.

The President balked at the fourth section, which removed powers over local government from the subject ministry and vesting them in a Local Government Commission that would be responsible for oversight, staffing and regulation of the local government organs. Through added powers vested by the Fiscal Transfer Act, local organs would also now have much more autonomy over their funding, including the power to seek loans. With the change of government, the last pieces of legislation were assented to last July. The intent is to give more autonomy to the local organs with the expectation they would be more responsive to local concerns.

For the citizens, most of whom will be voting for the first time in LGE, they need to know about the structural changes now vested in “constituencies” within the Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) and Municipalities, which would now have specific individuals responsible for them. At the LGE, therefore, there would be two parts to the ballot – just as in the General Elections: one for electing Councillors in general through Proportional Representation and another for Constituencies. Voters are expected to now know their specific representatives in their constituency who they most likely know and who are supposed to know of local problems they would be expected to address.

The most pertinent change, however, would be the need for the new officials – Councillors, Chairmen and Mayors, etc – to appreciate they should strive to be independent of the Central Government. It was for this purpose they now have greater powers over the raising and spending of funds in addition to being independent of ministerial control – both courtesy of the new legislation. The education of both citizens and the Councillors who will be elected need to be addressed so they can better perform their duties in the new dispensation intended to broaden and deepen the democratic imperative of “power to the people”. Maybe this is one of the roles the ABC countries can play after the elections since they were so vociferous in pushing for the latter.

As we pointed out some time ago, the fundamental issue in all efforts at “decentralisation” is the acknowledgement that power in the polity as a whole is already “centralised”. History has shown that power is never relinquished without struggle. It is hoped that the newly empowered local councillors will now seize the moment and declare their allegiance to local empowerment rather than buttressing the powers of the national elite.

Citizens should come out in force to let their voices be heard.

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