Sunday, April 26, 2009

‘Deepening democracy’

‘Deepening democracy’

Posted By Stabroek staff On April 26, 2009 @ 5:01 am In Editorial | No Comments

PPP General Secretary Donald Ramotar is the latest ruling party figure to have his say on the local government task force, following Mr Clinton Collymore, Dr Roger Luncheon and President Jagdeo. Mr Collymore, of course, was Co-Chair of the task force, and it was he who unilaterally aborted its deliberations, despite the fact that in so doing he was operating outside his sphere of authority. He was adamant that he had not issued his termination notice under instructions, although his illegitimate action has now been sanctioned by the highest levels in the government and party, giving substance to the opposition’s claim that he was, in fact, directed to end the proceedings.

The President groused about the eight years it has taken to get this far, omitting to mention, as said in an earlier editorial, that some of the delay in the past two years can be laid at the door of his party’s Co-Chair, who was simply not available for work to proceed; on one occasion, for instance, the hiatus in the discussions lasted almost three months on his account. In addition, as also mentioned previously, Mr Collymore is not noted for his negotiating skills, something one would have expected the President would not have been unaware of. Considering that the PPP/C Co-Chair had attempted to bring the task force to an end unilaterally last October as well, the inference that compromise was never really intended by the governing party appears not that outlandish.

After the combined opposition had raised their voices to condemn Mr Collymore’s action in terminating the task force, the President said that unresolved issues would be discussed by himself and the Leader of the Opposition, and if that failed, the local government bills would go to Parliament. Given what Mr Ramotar was reported to have said on Friday, the electorate should entertain no optimism about the outcome of the discussions between Messrs Jagdeo and Corbin. In addition, both Dr Luncheon and the President have made no secret of the fact that they feel Parliament is the best place for the debate on amendments to local government legislation, the former, it seems, because then it would be in the public eye.

And what delayed the decisions on reform in the task force for so long? The PNCR has been consistent in its claims over the years that the PPP/C side has shown reluctance to release central government’s hold on local bodies. This position is in consonance with what the nation in a general sense knows about how the governing party operates, viz, it is obsessed with control and is allergic to autonomous institutions. In addition, its treatment of the city of Georgetown − the shortcomings of the Mayor and City Council notwithstanding − supplies ample evidence of its determination to maintain its stranglehold on councils, particularly those where the opposition predominates. As a general observation too, it could reasonably be argued that it is the party out of office which would want greater devolution to local councils, not the one in office.

President Jagdeo cited Mr Collymore when accounting for the difficulty the two sides had in reaching agreement. The latter said apparently that the opposition lacked a sense of urgency – an extraordinary claim coming from him, one would have thought – and that it was “stonewalling.” This is not a helpful term, especially if it simply means that the PNCR representatives refused to accede to what the PPP/C wanted, and what the PPP/C wanted was to continue to keep local government bodies in its thrall. For his part Mr Ramotar advanced the reason that decisions made at one meeting had been “recommitted” at another. Exactly what that referred to was not explained.

Be that as it may, on Friday he gave some no doubt unintended credence to what the PNCR has been saying. He expounded on the difference between the two sides on the issue of phased local government elections, ie, holding such elections on different dates within a fixed time frame. The PNCR, he was reported as saying, wanted decisions about phasing to reside with Gecom, while the PPP/C wanted it to reside with the minister. That it is not in the interest of genuine democracy to have a decision of this kind taken by a political party in government does not seem to have occurred to the PPP/C; the truth is that in any regular democratic jurisdiction it simply should not be in a position to manipulate dates in its favour, even if its intentions are entirely above board. The appearance of manipulation would be every bit as damaging as the reality, more especially in our contentious political climate.

Of course the General Secretary held forth on the PPP’s favourite subject of “consolidating, widening and deepening our democracy,” and expressed the conviction that local government elections were essential to “renewing democracy at the grass roots.” It is perfectly true that there is a desperate need for the holding of such elections, but to what extent these will ‘renew democracy at the grass roots’ will depend in the first instance on how radical the reforms to the existing system are. If central government retains something like its current grip on local government organs, then grass-roots democratic revival will be correspondingly limited.

Referring to a disagreement with the PNCR about the inclusion of certain new sections in one of the bills under discussion, which the PPP/C wanted postponed in order not to delay the submission of the bill, Mr Ramotar adverted to “the second phase of the local government reform process.” After eight years key decisions should not be postponed; they should be made now and included in the legislation. A “second phase” which one must presume is intended for after the local government elections, will probably never materialise, or if it does will be subject to endless procrastination.

The President is right about one thing, and that is what happens in Parliament will be open to public scrutiny. If it emerges, therefore, that the governing party is prepared to ram through legislation some of which will not be reflective of true devolution, then their claims about grass-roots democracy will be exposed as a chimera. Local government elections held under arrangements which continue any of the key central government controls which exist at present, will not ‘deepen democracy.’

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