CLOSE to 70 groups, parties and individuals on Tuesday submitted their symbols to the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), indicating desire to contest long-delayed local government elections (LGE) which will be held on March 18.But as these elections approach, GECOM Commissioner Vincent Alexander believes that Guyanese need to be more informed on the functioning of local government.
Alexander said the majority of citizens would be going to the polls either uneducated or not sufficiently educated on local governance. He explained that education on local government issues should have taken place a number of years ago, so the masses would understand the importance of local government elections (LGE).
These elections were last held in Guyana in 1994 for only the second time in the history of post-Independence Guyana, according to Alexander. The first time they were ever held in Guyana was in 1970.
Speaking with the Guyana Chronicle yesterday, Alexander, a seasoned GECOM Commissioner, said it is critical that the populace be educated on aspects of local government.
Alexander said he thinks the issue is not just about local government elections, but about local governance, because people are really not very conscious of the presence of local authorities and how they function. What is most important now, he said, is knowledge about local government itself.
He believes that, with sufficient knowledge of local government, persons would be in a better position to appreciate the importance of the elections.
“When local bodies are in place, people can have the kind of relationship to ensure there is accountability and things like that,” Alexander explained. He said he believes that local government education is “long overdue”.
“I would be the first to admit — to say that we should have done more work in terms of education. That we haven’t done more work is regrettable, but in some instances it was almost calculated,” he said with dismay.
He explained that during the Desmond Hoyte era, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), responsible for administering most of Canada’s cooperation programmes with developing countries, had offered to fund the local government education, but the PPP, through its representative, at the time Clinton Collymore, had said it was not necessary. As such, Alexander says, it is strange that the opposition PPP are now making claims that the citizenry are ill- informed of local government.
“Well, I remember, years ago, when the Canadians came forward, when I was in the local Government Task Force and said let us fund some local government consciousness … The PPP said it is not your business. This is the kind of politrics in this country,” he told the Guyana Chronicle.
Alexander stressed that such acts should never be part of Guyanese politics. “We can’t allow that to be the determining factor of the politics. We could have started this work long ago…but the government wasn’t facilitating that; but now the same people are turning around to say the people don’t know enough about it.”
Asked whether the lack of education on local government would affect how persons go to the polls, Alexander replied in the affirmative. “It will have some effect,” he said, noting that there is no real comparison to make. He explained that LGEs globally never attract the same turn out as national elections.
“We don’t have a baseline data we could use to do a comparison. We could look at 1994 … about 25 per cent to 30 per cent turnout was that bad or good…? I think we can only build, and we have to build, over time,” the GECOM Commissioner opined.
The need for local government elections is urgent, and Alexander believes that, over time, persons will be sufficiently educated on pertinent issues.
Despite the constant cries of the PPP, that the Elections Commission is not prepared to host LGE, Alexander maintains that GECOM minus sequential activities is ready.
The opposition PPP had said that GECOM is not ready to host the elections. The party notes that amendment of the legislation, the size of the constituencies, and insufficient staff were some concerns of its main concerns.
The Municipal and District Councils and Local Authorities (Amendment) Bill was passed last month in the National Assembly. It amends the Municipal and District Councils Act, Chapter 28:01, to provide clarity on its application with respect to the new local government system.
The legislation also amends the Local Authorities (Elections) Act, Chapter 28:03, to ensure consistency in its application, as obtains in the Municipal and District Councils Act.
“My disposition, generally, is (that) even the instances where something might not be in place now, but because of the nature of the preparations for LGE, GECOM has the time to put it in place. There are things in GECOM which have to be done sequentially… Some things can’t be done unless some other things are done.”
Alexander has said that highlighting sequential activities cannot speak to the GECOM level of preparedness. “Even in the instance where things are not waiting for the sequential resolution, there is still time, and GECOM is aware of what needs to be done and has the institutional experience and capacity to be in a complete state of readiness,” he said.
He noted that the recruitment of staff is a challenge for GECOM, but is being remedied. He said that while there is a deficit, LGE cannot be postponed.
“… You can’t just say you are postponing elections because you don’t have enough staff, hoping that sometime you will get it. You have to work towards getting it… and that is what GECOM is doing. We are looking at ways or approaches, for example, GECOM has a habit of employing only people over 18 years, but one of the things we have said (are) we have some of the officials you require to do jobs like receptionists etc., we are saying why can’t you take a 1700-year-old? So there is thinking going on to address these problems.”
Addressing the PPP’s claim of the size of the electorate in some constituencies, Alexander said, “That is not a matter for GECOM to determine…so GECOM doesn’t see it as an issue it has to resolve…it is not GECOM’s problem.”
The PPP had said there are nine constituencies with less than one hundred voters each. PPP Commissioner Bibi Shadick said one constituency in Leguan has 55 voters, but any candidate who wishes to contest is expected to have 30 supporters.
“How do you have a contest if you need 30 backers for one candidate, and one person can’t back more than one candidate, yet there are only 55 voters?” Shadick asked.
Notwithstanding the concerns of the PPP, Alexander stressed that GECOM is ready, given its current stage, and will be ready for the elections on March 18.
“GECOM is in a better position to move forward, because we couldn’t do certain things like finalise the printing of the ballot paper until you know who the contestants are. Now you have the symbols in, you have a better gauge as to who your contestants are, so you can move closer to finalising the contract for the printing of the ballot paper,”he said.
SUBMISSION OF SYMBOLS
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Elections Officer Vishnu Persaud, in an invited comment, told this publication that GECOM is in receipt of all submissions by persons interested in contesting the March 18 polls. However, work is still being done on the submissions.
Persaud explained that an exact figure on submissions was submitted, but the information would be inaccurate.
“There are a number of duplicated submissions, so, to give you the answer to your question now would be difficult, and I would be providing incorrect information.”
GECOM is currently processing all applications received, but Persaud estimates that between 60 and 70 applications for symbols were submitted by political parties, voluntary groups and individual candidates.
Now that the symbols have been submitted to the Returning Officer for approval by the Commission, those desirous of contesting the elections would be submitting their list of candidates on Nomination Day, January 26, after which representatives will be informed of defects in their submissions on the following day.
Representatives will be given the opportunity to return the corrected lists of candidates to GECOM on January 29, and that list will be approved by January 31, after which representatives will be informed. Appeals against refusals to approve the lists of candidates will be entertained on February 1, after which the Commission will publish the symbols and approved lists of candidates on February 2.
By Ariana Gordon