In what has to be labelled “historic” circumstances, the first Local Government Elections (LGE) in twenty-two years were conducted. Not surprisingly, most of the reports filed since the results came in focused on the extremely low voter turn out. But this did not come as a surprise to anyone and ought not to detract from the main achievement of the event: the rebirth of local government.
A rebirth implies a coming anew into the world after a period of quiescence and this is precisely what occurred with our local government organs (LGO). Because of fundamental disagreements between the PPP and PNC on the drafting of legislation for local government reform, most of the LGO’s had been staffed by holdovers from the election of 1994 – such as the Mayor of Georgetown Hamilton Green. In some instances, Interim Management Committees (IMC) had been installed by the Local Government Minister because of non-performance by the incumbents.
Citizens, as such, have had very little experience with a functioning local government system and to the extent they did, because of constraints the new legislation was intended to remove, the experience was not salutary. And it is these new rules under which local government is supposed to run that offers hope of a “rebirth”. At birth, the infant is not expected to be off and running: it is expected there will be a period of training and practice before its promise can be realised and appreciated.
The primary function of the new local government regime is for citizens located in units in which they actually live – be it “wards” in towns or “villages” in National Democratic Councils (NDC’s) – to actually have a one-to-one relationship with the Councillors who will be representing their interests. These will be the individuals who ran as candidates in their “constituencies”.
While we have a “representative” democratic system, in that we elect twenty-five Members of Parliament to represent the interests of “regions” in the National Government, it has been found in practice that the relationship between representative and constituent is too attenuated. In lieu of a return to the original democratic system of the Greeks which demanded all citizens show up at the city square and vote directly on issues, a “Regional System”, introduced in 1980. This introduced a second layer of representatives that was supposed intermediate relations between the National Government at the centre and the lowest one the Municipalities and the NDC’s. But as we discussed this was proven ineffective primarily because the officials of the national Government refused to allow the officials in the LGO’s to function independently.
The first most pertinent change the new “baby” will have to inculcate and demonstrate to the citizens is that the local government officials will now be responsible to a Local Government Commission and not to the Local Government Minister. This is supposed to introduce greater autonomy of action at the lower level. The second change is Local government organs will be raising more funds of their own and become less dependent on “subventions” from the Central Government via which control was exercised. Finally is is expected that the “constituent” representatives will become more responsive to the concerns of citizens at the grassroots.
If the Local Government “baby” is to develop healthily, like the Greek citizens of ore, they will have to take a direct interest in the functioning of LGO’s – at least in their constituencies or wards. From that first step it is hoped that a greater number might then become involved in the functioning of the regional and ultimately, national organs.