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Local govt elections unlikely this year

Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan.

Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan says he sees no reason preventing the holding of long-overdue Local Government Elections (LGE) this year, but much depends on the readiness of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) and the passage of a key law that will pass several executve responsibilities to the Local Government Commission.

“We are committed to ensuring that the provisions related to de-centralisation and de-concentration are implemented,” Bulkhan told Demerara Waves Online News when asked how much of priority LGE is to the new administration.

These elections were last held in 1994, though they were due every three years since. 

The A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) + Alliance for Change (AFC) coalition government has listed LGE as one of the initiatives to be executed within the first 100 days of its incumbency. Asked for a more specific fix on when Guyanese could expect such elections Bulkhan said “I see no reason why it should not be this year.”

But, even if the new administration were to call on the GECOM to hold LGE it is unlikely that such elections would take place this year as GECOM officials have consistently said that the body would need around six (6) months to hold the elections.

On Monday a Senior GECOM official explained that the next LGE will be held under a new system and that much civic and voter education would have to be done, in addition to other preparations. However, official said that as GECOM is aware that it can be called upon to hold LGE at any time it has a plan which it is ready to roll out.

In any event, the calling of LGE is premised on how soon the administration resurrects and passes the Local Government (Amendment) Bill – the only of a suite of four bills( the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, the Local Government Commission, Bill, the Municipal & District Council (Amendment) Bill and the Fiscal Transfer Bill) which was not assented to in 2013 by then president Donald Ramotar. The bills, once implemented, were to effect local government reform, and create the conditions necessary to hold LGE. 

Following their passage through the National Assembly the bills were sent to the Chambers of then Attorney General (AG) Anil Nandlall, who kept them for three (3) months, arguing that the Chief Parliamentary Council (CPC) needed to scrutanise them for irregularities.

Nandlall had also said that he was awaiting word from the president on whether the bills were to be granted assent certificates. Nandlall was widely criticised by his counterparts in the then APNU/AFC combined – opposition for intentionally stalling the process by which the bills were to be assented to.

The government at the time also sustained criticism by civil society groups including, but not limited to the Guyana Bar Association, the Private Sector Commission (PSC), Blue Caps, and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce. The heads of the American, British and Canadian missions in Guyana also came out strongly in separate and collective bids to convince government to take the necessary steps toward calling LGE.

It was not until November 5th, 2013 that Ramotar announced that he gave his assent to all but the Local Government (Amendment) Bill.

Nandlall had said that Ramotar refused to give his assent to the bills as it transfer administrative and financial powers from the Local Government Minister to Local Government Commission in contravention of Article 78A of Guyana’s Constitution.

The provisions reads: “Parliament shall establish a Local Government Commission, the composition and rules of which empower the commission to deal with as it deems fit, all matters related to the regulation and staffing of local government organs and with dispute resolution within and between local government organs.”

The text of the provision does not seem to substantiate Nandlall’s arguments as no limitation is placed on the Commission’s power to regulate local organs. Further, some critics had argued that it was not for the president to decide against assenting to a bill because it contained unconstitutional provisions. Questions of constitutionality of legislation, it was said, if for the court to decide through judicial review.

It is also material to note that while Ramotar assented to the Local Government Commission Bill, its provisions could not take effect until then Local Government Minister Norman Whittaker gave a commencement order for the commission to be established. Whittaker never gave the order.

 “Now that we are in a position to deliver on that pressing need it makes it easier…we are now empowered to deliver what it is we had been agitating an articulating for,” explained Bulkhan, though he admitted that “I can’t guarantee it at the first sitting…”

Not only has the coalition managed to snag the reins to the Executive arm of government, it has also secured 33 of the 65 seats in the National Assembly. This will enable it to pass the bill regardless of whether the now Peoples Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) Opposition agree to its provisions. As the coalition also holds the presidency there is no question as to whether it will receive the president’s assent. 

Once these provisions are implemented the coalition will be taking power out of the hand of its own Minister, as opposed to the hands of a PPPC minister, as would have been the case had the bill been assented to in 2013. Such decentralisation though, does not seem to be a cause for concern for the current administration.

“The new administration will seek to implement provisions relating to autonomy…it is a shame that local democracy that local democracy was not implemented under the former administration,” lamented Bulkhan, who added that “no minister will again dictate for any council…the days for that are over.”