Local government elections in 2023

On October 20, Local Government Minister Nigel Dharamlall announced that Local Government Elections (LGE) would take place on March 13, 2023. This was the earliest date given by GECOM Chairwoman Justice (to retirement) Claudette Singh to her correspondence telling her when the election might be held.

If the Neighborhood Democratic Council (NDC) and Municipality elections were held as planned next March, they would have been delayed by about 15 months, which is completely unacceptable and for which GECOM must bear the responsibility.

On the night of October 20, President Ali in a video statement on his Facebook page welcomed the announcement of the elections.

“We urge all stakeholders to participate fully in this process. We call on all opposition political parties to prepare, you have enough notice to be part of this democratic process,” President Ali said.

He added that the organization of local government polls is the result of PPP/C’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and following a democratic path towards good governance.

“An important part of democracy is local governance. Local governance and [the] local government system [are] an essential part of our governance framework. We promised that as soon as GECOM alerted us that they were ready for local elections, we would spare no effort or time to call local elections.

“Tonight I am very happy to tell you that we have received notice from GECOM that they are ready for Local Government Elections, their first date being March 13, I have asked the Minister of Local Government to d ‘to inform GECOM that we are ready and will move to local elections on the first date they send to us, that date is March 13,’ Mr Ali said.

It would be fair to say that the president’s enthusiasm for LGE must represent a sea change in PPP/C’s outlook on these polls. In roughly 25 years of PPP/C governance dating back to 1992 – and including President Ali’s two-plus years in power – only one local election has taken place. In contrast, APNU+AFC held two LGEs during its five-year tenure starting in 2015 and both before the successful no-confidence motion against it in December 2018.

The President, in his statement, affirmed that his party will spare no effort to work with every community, municipality and township to put together a slate reflecting his “One Guyana” agenda. He added that their planned team will be built around promoting development and collaboration at regional and central levels of government.

“March 13 is therefore an important date in which I call on all Guyanese to work to renew our efforts in building the system of governance, building our communities, strengthening our communities but above all our municipalities. [and] our townships. For a long time, we have seen what bad management can do in the townships, in certain municipalities, in certain regions. This is the time for us to work together, this is the time for us to come together, this is the time for us to strengthen our governance system to work towards building a system that benefits our people” , added the president.

With the incumbent on its side and the benefits that come with it in this booming oil economy, the PPP/C will no doubt pull out all the stops in its campaigns to win over the NDCs and municipalities on March 13.

However, there are major problems in the local government system that will only get worse if the status quo is maintained.

Many CDNs and municipalities have been mismanaged over the years and there are a multiplicity of reasons why this is so. First, many of those elected to boards and appointed to leadership and leadership positions are unfit for the job. Also, many of them are part-timers, so while some may have the ability to perform, they also have to earn a living and they mostly moonlight. Fairly paid full-time positions should be introduced in all councils. The resources now exist to achieve this.

Second, aside from too-brief interludes, both major parties have sought to bring national politics to local government bodies. In doing so, they reproduce the battlefield at the national level with all the nerves that entails. One of the most ridiculous manifestations of this phenomenon has been the manipulation of clerks/watchmen at the town hall or particularly at the regional level – the Regional Executive Officers. Thus, if the opposition is in charge of a particular council, the government can interfere and attempt to direct it by placing its appointees to control the day-to-day functioning (dysfunction) of the councils or even to seize the purse strings . With a supine local government commission, the ruling party still does what it wants.

The Mayor and City Council (MCC) is the poster child for all that is wrong with the local government system. This current council is incapable and torn by endless quarrels. Key executives do not answer to the board. Nothing substantial will be accomplished. No aspect of MCC’s recent history inspires applause, except perhaps that brief period when PPP/C inserted an interim management body made up largely of people with proven business and other areas.

Third, none of the major municipalities and councils have sufficient revenue to perform their functions adequately, if they even had the necessary expertise. During the 25 years he has been in power for the past 30 years, PPP/C governments have been parsimonious with the council that runs the city which has always been led by the opposition. The central government has also prevented revenue-enhancing measures such as a lottery, and property valuation rates have not changed for many years. The city council’s revenue base is stagnating as its population and responsibilities grow.

In difficult economic circumstances, governments could have reasonably justified limited subsidies to the city. Given revenue streams from oil, this subsidy should increase significantly and the city should be able to raise sufficient funds to meet its primary responsibilities. Likewise, the council will have to start performing – not the current pantomime that is usually on display at statutory meetings. Essentially, next year’s election should see slates of professionals who will be well compensated for their time, some of whom will be in full-time positions and with achievable earning bases so they can deliver services and restore the pride of this darkened city. Party hacks need not apply or be introduced.

If he is serious about respecting local government, President Ali will have to recognize that it is not acceptable for the ministry of public works or agriculture to usurp functions that should be the responsibility of the city. The answer is to build the capacity of these bodies, otherwise local government will further atrophy and completely disintegrate.

NDCs present much the same problem. Transfers from the center are not enough, many councils have low collection of rates and taxes and they depend on state donations or visits from ministers declaring the start of bridge and road projects etc. This too must end.

Very often, CDNs are alienated from their constituents and unaccountable. This is exactly what has now created a crisis at BV/Triumph NDC. A section of this council conspired behind the backs of the people to sell lands not under their control for a pittance. It’s unclear exactly what inspired this horrific transaction, but getting out of it has become a legal nightmare. These NDCs require serious analysis of their performance in the last two local elections to determine what legislative or other changes are needed. Such an exercise should ideally have been undertaken through the Local Government Commission and the Ministry of Local Government, but given the highly politicized perspective of these two bodies, such an exercise would be futile.

The condition of the inhabitants of villages and municipalities will not experience significant improvements under the current arrangements. In the coming months, President Ali’s government and parliament should consider what is needed to give these councils a real chance of success.

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