GECOM and the President’s remarks

While preposterous, President Ramotar’s claims earlier this month that the elections had been manipulated by the APNU and AFC to the extent that the ruling party had been robbed of 4 to 5% will have serious repercussions on the Guyana Elections Commission and public confidence in the electoral process.

Just to rewind, it will be remembered that President Ramotar had said in an interview with the Guyana Chronicle about the opposition that “They did a lot of wicked things in South Georgetown and some other areas.”  He went on to say that they got PPP/C polling agents out of the stations by “terrible hostility and threatening violence and so on… they penetrated GECOM and controlled (to some extent) the elections machinery, where they were not even taking instructions from the Chairman or the Chief Elections Officer and they were doing a lot of manipulation at that point in time.

“Even with the counting, I understand that they kept people far away so that they could not see what was happening. That was confirmed to me by independent observers.” As to how much the PPP/C should have won by, President Ramotar said, “My own realistic assessment was that we had probably between 52%-53%.”

His attack on the quality of the elections and the integrity of GECOM has so far not elicited a detailed response from the electoral body. When he was contacted by Stabroek News, GECOM Chairman Dr Steve Surujbally would only say that Mr Ramotar had told him that the commission “did nothing wrong,” but that the elections-day staff “was anti-PPP.”

There are two things wrong with this picture. The first is that a private assurance by President Ramotar to Dr Surujbally will not suffice for the purposes of defending the integrity of the November 28 General and Regional elections, GECOM and its staff.  Second, GECOM, particularly its Chairman Dr Surujbally, has not been shy about taking on detractors frontally especially where it has felt that there has been unjustifiable criticism. In this case, the criticism is far worse even if it was just pure politicking. The President has accused GECOM of presiding over rigged elections and this is the stigma it now faces. It has however not spurred the commission into action. Has there been a GECOM meeting on President Ramotar’s remarks and if so where is its public affirmation or condemnation of his position?

GECOM’s image and standing aside, President Ramotar’s remarks will also have a numbing effect on an increasingly cynical electorate. When the time comes for elections to be called again many might consider casting ballots a waste of time and energy if the President’s charges are not withdrawn or effectively demolished. The former is in the bailiwick of the President and the latter is the responsibility of GECOM – particularly its Chairman and commissioners.

For the record the final reports of the Common-wealth and the OAS observer missions do not indicate at all any discrepancies of the magnitude so cavalierly alleged by President Ramotar and it would be illuminating if he expounded on the independent observing that shaped his worldview on the elections.

It must also be said that given Guyana’s tortured electoral history and the undeniable and incontrovertible rigging of national elections that occurred between 1968 and 1985 that President Ramotar’s baseless allegations have done a great disservice to the decades of heroic efforts by ordinary citizens and political parties – the PPP playing a prominent role – to make the case and transform that into international pressure for fundamental electoral reforms. His performance now enters the same incredulous category of many of the charges levelled by the PNC and PNCR at the 1997 and 2001 elections and ironically at the PPP/C. President Ramotar should review his statements in the Chronicle interview and either retract them or provide further information.

The President’s statements also come at a critical time for GECOM and may – wittingly or unwittingly – end up providing the impetus for deeper reforms both at GECOM and of the electoral framework. As hard as it has tried GECOM has not been able to separate itself from the fiasco of the delayed results from November’s elections and the ultimate shocker – the near declaration of the PPP/C as having attained a parliamentary majority even though the party had only 48.6% of the votes. The latter incident has raised concerns about competence and intent in the procedures leading up to the final declaration by the Chief Election Officer, Mr Gocool Boodoo. This event and the fact that it was an alert commissioner who detected the patent flaw have not been adequately explained by GECOM and Mr Boodoo. Coming after the mistake in the 2006 tabulation that allowed the PPP/C a seat in Region 10 which the AFC should have held, this near-fiasco raises serious credibility questions for GECOM and the CEO even though the lengthy delays this time around were intended to pick up exactly these types of errors.

The country has also been awaiting local government elections which have not been held since 1994. If the mood among all stakeholders is that urgent electoral reforms are needed then that should be put on the front burner by the new parliament before preparations begin for local government elections.

The final OAS observer mission statement last week has provided a timely reminder of the need for electoral and other reforms. The Carter-Price formula for the Elections Commission has outlived its usefulness. The government and the opposition should not have a monopoly on the GECOM board and there should be no permanent positions.

It is worth restating some of the OAS’s key recommendations:

“Given that the Guyanese electoral system requires voters to mark a ballot for the party, not a named candidate, the mission recommends revisiting the possibility of allowing direct representation to provide greater choice for voters and direct access to political representatives.

“A review of the composition of the Electoral Commission to potentially incorporate technical criteria and to establish mechanisms that guarantee plurality. These recommendations are designed to enhance independence and to reduce the perception of politicization of the electoral process.

“The level of legal detail and discretion afforded the Commission regarding electoral procedures. The OAS mission recommends the consideration of safeguards and detailed regulations to ensure full independence and guarantee participation by all citizens.

“Guaranteed availability and disbursement of the approved allotment of resources for the electoral process to GECOM on a regular, scheduled basis during electoral years.

“As recommended by the 2006 OAS electoral observation mission, constitutionally mandated local elections should be held soon to increase the inclusivity of the political system.”

These matters should be placed on the parliamentary agenda urgently.