Stabroek News Editorial

Historic local government elections (LGE) are just 19 days away and there is evidently need for more information from GECOM and other stakeholders to the public on a range of areas.

These include the hybrid first-past-the-post (FPTP)/proportional representation system where electors will have two votes in whichever municipality or neighbourhood democratic Council (NDC) they vote. Electors must have clear information on how to determine which constituency they are voting in and how to find their polling stations. There also needs to be a statement on when the winners of FPTP contests will be declared. A novel feature of the electoral system for this year’s long-awaited local government elections is the FPTP contests which will hopefully generate broad interest and excitement in the various constituencies in the coming days. Those who have offered themselves as candidates and those who will be voting for them need to know soonest who has won the contests. The FPTP votes should be counted first on the evening of March 18th and once collated from the various polling stations within a constituency and verified there should be an early declaration of a winner. It would be the height of absurdity if days drag by without the declaration of the winning candidates. Thursday’s general election in Jamaica produced a same-day, unofficial declaration of the winner in a close contest with nary a protest and there is no reason why, notwithstanding the legal requirements, the counts in the constituencies here cannot be tallied and declared on March 18.

Conspicuously absent from any serious campaign to whip up interest in these elections is the Ministry of Communities. The irony of this is that wholesome communities require maximum participation in local government systems. APNU and the AFC while in opposition honourably and militantly campaigned for local government elections. History will record that it is the APNU+AFC government that delivered local government elections to the people after years of prevarication and evasiveness by PPP/C governments and a lapse of 22 years. However, the task of the new government with respect to LGE didn’t end with the naming of the date for the elections. Given the loss of a generation of experience with local government systems there was much room for serious work to advise the public of the characteristics of the elections and why it is important that they uphold their civic duty and vote on March 18.

Clearly there should have been a budgetary allocation for the ministry to engage in community meetings all across the country, even hosting fora where all of the candidates could have an opportunity to engage with their electorate. Sadly, there is no evidence of this. The ministry is conflicted. Its own governing coalition is a candidate in these elections, so naturally, any interventions that could even the playing field would be detrimental to the fortunes of the APNU+AFC candidates.

This is not how it should have been as the Ministry of Communities also has an obligation to educate all communities on pivotal pieces of local government reform legislation such as the Fiscal Transfers Act and the Local Government Commission Act.

It was/is a golden opportunity for the Ministry of Communities to enable electors to understand that their vote on March 18 could give them an opportunity to choose an individual who they would be able to complain to about their roads and bridges and who would also be able to contribute to decisions on how the monies available to municipalities and NDCs are spent. Even if their favoured candidate isn’t chosen, there will be a constituency representative who they can interface with. Electors should also be made aware that the NDC/municipality is now meant to be the locus of invigorated governance and their meetings can be attended and their mayors and chairpersons pressed to take action. As rate payers when they are displeased they can complain to their council representatives and take their complaints to higher fora if not satisfied.

While no money is being spent by APNU+AFC to float all of the boats that will be contesting these elections, large amounts are nonetheless being expended in a manner that will clearly benefit its candidates such as in the city clean-up, the repairing of the Kitty Market and the numerous other endeavours in all parts of the country. The question has been asked before in these columns about what steps have been taken by APNU+AFC to ensure that the state machinery isn’t used to unfairly bolster the campaigns of its candidates. There has been no response.

In the remaining days before the polls, a key factor in whipping up interest can be the many candidates in the FPTP contests, particularly individuals and those representing independent groups. The candidates for the two main contenders will clearly reflect the programmes and outlooks of their parties and may feel comforted that they can tap into a captive vote. This stranglehold on thought can be broken by enterprising FPTP candidates who are prepared to work door-to-door to convince electors on their programmes and to encourage them to go out and vote on March 18. This is the one wildcard in the entire FPTP process. Are those individuals and third party candidates well known and respected in their communities and industrious enough to chip away at the established political preferences? If they are there could well be some stunning upsets come polling day. It will be an auspicious way to welcome the return of local government elections.