Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stabroek News Editorial. 21 March 2010. Self image.

Stabroek News Editorial. 21 March 2010. Self image.
By Stabroek staff | March 21, 2010 in Editorial

Political arrangements in Guyana are complicated, and have been made even more complicated by the new provisions for local government elections which contain elements of both a constituency and a proportional representation system. Those new provisions have already been passed by the National Assembly (albeit not with the backing of the opposition), and would technically make possible the holding of local government elections whenever the government so decides. However, should such elections be held at this point, for example, it would be in a context where the actual form of local government which we will eventually end up with has not yet been fully clarified.

The story behind the proposals to reform local government is a long and convoluted one. However, it has two consistent threads: one is the determination of the ruling party to maintain central government control over local authorities, and the other, is the insistence of the opposition that power should be devolved from the centre to the various local bodies. The PPP are obviously not seized of the notion that at some point in the future they might be voted out of office, and that if that came to pass, a decentralized system would be to their advantage. As such, therefore, they have proved quite obdurate in their approach, if not manipulative, and it will not be easy for them to persuade anyone that they have been acting entirely in good faith in the last few years.

The story begins in 2001, when President Jagdeo and then Leader of the Opposition Desmond Hoyte agreed on the setting up of a Local Government Task Force, to be jointly chaired by the two major parties. The principle to which these two parties, as well as those which came into Parliament after the 2006 election, committed themselves, was that local government elections which had been postponed since 1997 should be held under a reformed system. While the meetings (originally intended to last only a year) were not without their periods of interruption, the task force did get under way, and went on to sit for around eight years without achieving accord in certain critical areas.

Now it might be thought by the casual observer that the way for them to have proceeded would have been to create a single omnibus piece of legislation covering all aspects of local government. In fact, what was done was to negotiate the provisions of five separate bills, or amendments to existing acts. These were the Fiscal Transfers Bill, the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, the Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill, the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Bill and the Local Government Commission Bill. (The last two have since been passed by the National Assembly without opposition support.) This approach with its implications for logical order has allowed room for all kinds of manoeuvrings, to which we will return later.

Particularly in its latter phases, the task force was subject to various delays, the key ones of which could be laid at the door of PPP Co-Chair Clinton Collymore. Whatever his intentions, he conveyed the distinct impression that first, he was attempting to stall proceedings, and then that he wanted to transfer the deliberations to a forum where his party exercised greater control. In October 2008, for example, he had written a memorandum recommending that owing to a deadlock on the task force, the remaining issues should be taken up by Cabinet. The opposition objected vehemently, not least because he had no authority to do this, and was acting in defiance of the terms of reference under which the task force had been set up. He was forced to retreat on that occasion; however, undaunted, in April of last year he unilaterally ended the discussions, because, he said, members were split on the agenda for their work.

While he was on no more solid ground than he had been on the first occasion, nevertheless, thereafter, the President moved local government reform to the parliamentary theatre where three of the bills are now mired in Select Committee. In brief, the opposition are not represented on the committee because they have refused to take up their seats there. They have said that the understanding with the ruling party was that the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, which as explained above would make possible the holding of elections, was intended to reflect all of the amendments to the different local government bills when the work on these had been completed.

The government, however, did not table all the bills in the National Assembly simultaneously; they tabled the above-mentioned bill first. According to the opposition, they then used this as an excuse to depart from the agreed agenda for the consideration of the bills in the Select Committee, arguing that they should be reviewed in the sequence in which they had been tabled in Parliament. Since they have a majority, this deviation from the agenda presented no problem for them. After the PPP/C members in the Select Committee had finished with the bill, it went to the House, where government members alone passed it without, as said above, support from the opposition.

The same fate befell the Local Government Commission Bill, which had always been a matter of contention. Under the existing law, the Minister of Local Government has considerable direct control over local authorities, and the proposal was, among other things, to transfer various of those powers to a commission. Under the new legislation, that has been done; the problem is that the government, to all intents and purposes, is responsible for the appointment of all six members of the new commission. Whereas previously, therefore, there was direct control by central government (through the agency of the Local Government Minister), now there is indirect control (mostly through the agency of the President) – a small change of emphasis, perhaps, but certainly not one of substance.

We are now left with three bills outstanding for the Select Committee’s consideration, one of which is of a particularly contentious nature, and that is the Fiscal Transfers Bill. As things stand central government has a great measure of control over the purse strings of the local authorities, and for obvious reasons, the ruling party has shown no enthusiasm for relinquishing this. Financial independence on the part of the regions and councils, etc, would imply some degree of independence of decision-making, something which has always been anathema to the ruling party. In its current format in the Select Committee, the new bill would still allocate the Minister of Local Government considerable discretion.

It is at this point that it might just have crossed the minds of the PPP/C, that their intractability may have a price which is too high to pay. If they use their majority in the House to ram through the remaining legislation, or if they hold local government elections with the Fiscal Transfers Bill especially still outstanding, they run a very real risk of presiding over a flawed election in some sense, particularly if it were held without the co-operation of all segments of the opposition. This would reflect badly in the international arena, not on the opposition, but on the government. We reported an unnamed PPP official last week as saying that the party wanted to avoid “controversy” in relation to the election. We can read this, no doubt, as meaning that they do not want to be bracketed in a category which has a less than democratic patina. A controversial election, in other words, would undermine their own self image.

Perhaps this is the reason the President met with the Leader of the Opposition the week before last, and undertook to have his concerns discussed at the level of the PPP Central Committee. One can only hope that PPP General Secretary Ramotar’s disingenuous remarks about who was responsible for the delays notwithstanding, the rest of the Central Committee has a better grasp of what is at issue, and even at this late stage commits itself to genuine devolution.

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