A famous saying in American politics is attributed to a long-serving Speaker of their House of Congress, Thomas “Tip” O’Neil: “All politics is local”. O’Neil attributed the advice to his father after he lost an early election in his native Boston when he had neglected his own neighbourhood. Even the persons who knew O’Neil personally did not forgive him for his inattention to their issues.
Even though recently there has been an ongoing debate in the US that the truism might at last be fading there, local politics had long been pushed away from the centre of Guyanese politics in the modern era, ushered in with the introduction of the universal franchise in 1950. Prior to that seismic event, the office holders in the Village Councils were key figures in running the affairs of their communities.
These Village Councils had been formed by the ex-slaves who had purchased abandoned plantations following the abolition of slavery. The Councillors, in turn played a key intermediary role in “national politics” by supporting parliamentary candidates supportive of their concerns within the limited franchise constituency system, where wealth and education determined enfranchisement.
The elections of 1950 did bring into play the hitherto disenfranchised and ignored lower and poorer classes, but just as significantly, shifted the political discourse from “local” to “national” issues linked to the achievement of independence from Britain. While in the first two elections of 1950 and 1957 village leaders were still important as mobilisers of the voters, the formation of competing parties after the latter elections proved to be the death knell of local government driving the political agenda. All politics was now “national” and all mobilisation was now “ethnic”.
With the achievement of independence in 1966, the PNC moved to further peripheralise effective local government even as they ostensibly “decentralised” governance into a “regional” system below the national level. The Regional system in turn was devolved into National Democratic Councils (NDCs) which abolished the Village Councils that had worked effectively for a century to address local concerns.
In this arrangement, several villages were agglomerated into NDCs for which officials were elected. But because of the peculiar nature of our settlement patterns of villages strung linearly along a single public road, there was very little connection between the NDC officials and the villages that formed the base of the communities.
As a result of this idiosyncrasy and also of the Central Government keeping control of the purse strings and appointment of the Overseer, who served as the executive officer of the NDCs, local government remained atrophied.
While the Local Government Elections (LGE) held on Friday was subsequent to changes in the Local Government legislation to address the shortcomings that vitiated their early influence, they did not go far enough to return the vitality of the early Village Councils.
We will have to see whether the compromise, in which villages were divided into “constituencies” from which first-past-the-post candidates were elected to the NDCs, will permit the return of democratic decision-making to the grassroots.
Much will depend on whether the two major political parties, which fielded almost all of the winning candidates, will empower their village “constituency” candidates by facilitating their efforts to address local issues regardless of who benefit, based on party affiliations. The two parties can also benefit by going along this route.
The neglect of effective local government percolating all the way to the village level has stymied the rise of leaders from that stratum. While both the PPP and the PNC had introduced “party groups” at the village level, the destruction of the Village Councils closed that avenue for these grassroots leaders to develop executive and management skills.
The parties now have the opportunity to reverse that process by offering training to their candidates in the village constituencies, whether they won or not. And most importantly to take their views under consideration when “national” policies are crafted for bottom-up governance.