(by Mark McGowan)
Historical accounts point to a local government system being set up following the emancipation of slaves in 1838, when ex-slaves purchased abandoned sugar and coffee plantations and established villages. Thereafter, self-government was established through the setting up of a Management Committee in each village.
Over the years, the system of local government continued to evolve. From 1845-1930, several pieces of legislation were enacted with the aim of improving the general conditions of the village councils. This was followed by several additional initiatives to improve the system including the introduction in 1932 of a decentralised system of administration via District Commissions.
In 1935, an ordinance was passed which allowed for improved methods of village elections. Subsequently, in 1945, the Local Government Act was consolidated and the Municipal District Councils Act and the Local Authorities Chapter were also introduced.
Later on in 1973, the District Commissioners System of 1932 was replaced by the Ministerial Regional System. Under this system, Guyana was divided into six administrative regions which served as links between the citizens and the State. This system, however, drew criticisms because some did not feel it satisfied the needs of the people since it lacked the instructional framework for ensuring that those development tasks identified were adequately addressed.
As a result of the limitations identified, efforts were made to enhance the regional system in Guyana and the Local Democratic Organs Act was introduced in keeping with the new constitution which identified the Local Government System as the foundation of the democratic organisation of the State.
The country was then divided into 10 administrative regions which were further divided into sub-regions, districts, communities etc with each being charged with different responsibilities. Presently there are ten administrative regions, six towns and 65 Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs).
The most recent Local Government Elections were held in on August 8, 1994, two years after the historic 1992 general and regional elections and some 24 years after the previous Local Government elections held in 1970.
Not surprisingly, the main interest during the 1994 polls surrounded who would capture the mayoral seat in Georgetown. The five parties that contested were the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) with Philomena Sahoye-Shury as its candidate, the People’s National Congress (PNC) with Dr Faith Harding as its candidate, A Good and Green Georgetown
(GGG) led by Hamilton Green, a former Deputy Leader of the PNC, the United Force with
Samuel Abdool as its candidate, the Union of Guyanese International (UGI) and National Republican Party with Charles Griffith as its candidate for mayor.
The major subplot of these elections was how the GGG would fare especially since its leader Green had been kicked out of the PNC, which he had served for several years in various senior positions.
The GGG, for the most part, was made up of ex PNC-councillors and former PNC supporters and for some analysts, a loss for Green would signal the end of his political career. Veteran journalist, the now deceased Cecil Griffith, in a Stabroek News article which was published on the day of the elections, opined that Green was playing perhaps what was his last political card and suggested that he was the candidate that stood to lose the most should he be defeated at the polls.
Meanwhile, Griffith suggested that a loss for the PNC in the capital city would bring into question its existence as a viable political party. On the other hand, he said that results would indicate to the PPP/C how members of the city judged their performance since their victory at the 1992 polls.
The final results for the city revealed the following: GGG- 10,784 (40.7%) – 12 seats;
PNC- 8,601 (31.7%) – 10 seats and the PPP/C-7,592 (26.7%) – 8 seats, resulting in Green becoming the Mayor of Georgetown. The PPP/C was able to capture the towns of Anna
Regina, Rose Hall and Corriverton while the PNC secured Linden and New Amsterdam. The PPP/C won more than two thirds of the 65 NDCs/ The PNC had declined to enter the race to control these NDCS. Significantly, these elections saw the emergence of 17 independent citizen groups entering the race to control the NDCs.
Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman has indicated that the 1994 elections was an exciting experience for him and indicated it marked his entrance into local politics when he campaigned for the PNC. These elections, he said, were a natural follow up to the 1992 general elections.
“We had just come out of the 1992 elections and there was a sense of well-being. And\ there was a sense that the country was going somewhere,” Trotman said noting also that Late President Hugh Desmond Hoyte’s Economic Recovery Program (ERP) was bearing fruit prompting some measure of optimism among the populace.
The elections witnessed low voter turnout, a phenomenon which was not entirely unexpected. In the lead up to the elections, Stabroek News columnist Christopher Ram noted the “understandable” indifference of many persons to these elections given its prolonged absence and the system under which they were being held. Ram pointed to an urgent need “to revamp the legislation for Local Government representation, financing and the scope of responsibility” so as to allow for the proper division of power and revenue between Central Government and local authorities.
These issues were among those that formed the core of the discussion on local government reform and were among those that a specially commissioned bi-party Local Government Reform Task Force, established by an agreement between then President Bharrat Jagdeo and then Opposition Leader Desmond Hoyte, were tasked with addressing. Commissioned in 2001, this Task Force laboured for eight years before co-chair of the committee Clinton Collymore decided to end the discussions because of “a major fundamental disagreement between” the PNCR and the PPP/C members on the committee. The matter was then taken to Parliament and addressed in a Special Select Committee.
Last year, President Donald Ramotar signed into law three of four local government bills, which were passed by the Opposition-controlled National Assembly. The bills signed were the Fiscal Transfers Bill 2012, Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill, and the Local Government Commission Bill. Ramotar refused to sign the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to strip the Minister of Local Government of his powers to dissolve local authorities and place those powers in the hands of a Local Government Commission. In the meantime, there is no inkling as to when or if Local Government Elections will be held even in the face of increased pressure from opposition parties, the diplomatic community and civil society.
Lamenting the long delay in the holding of these elections, Trotman said while it was expected that local government elections would continue to be held as constitutionally mandated, the political realities affected this. He noted that the aftermath of the 1997 elections which spilt over to 1998 would have made it impossible to have elections at this time.
The following years from 1998-2001, Trotman noted, were focused on constitutional reform which would have included the reform of the local government system. Trotman said too that while it was the PPP/C who would have had to table the bill to postpone these elections, each year it was done with the support of the main opposition the PNCR, which would have supported it for one reason or the other.
However, Trotman now feels that the country continues to suffer because of the lack of these elections. “The country has lost and continues to lose. It is like a deformity. If corrective action is not taken early, the body politic will learn to live with it [the deformity],” he said.
The Speaker of the House also plugged the importance of empowering the “people on the ground” in helping to solve the country’s ethnic complications. He said that people themselves should be given power so that they would not be overly dependent on the central government. Deep down he feels that these elections are something Guyanese really want but said that given its prolonged absence, there needs to be widespread education and training of the population.
In the meantime, Guyana continues to wait. For how much longer? No one really knows.
 Information was taken from “Who’s Who in Local Governance: Directory of Local Government Organs and Officials produced by the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development.