Reforming GECOM

In an interview published in the Sunday March 18 issue of the Guyana Times, Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) Dr. Steve Surujbally proffers an aggressive defence of the Commission in its handling of the November 2011 general elections that embraces issues ranging from his own performance as Commissioner to his views on calls for GECOM to be reformed.

One is inclined to share Dr. Surujbally’s view that some of the criticisms of GECOM derive from what he describes as “a lack of trust” in the political arena. Indeed, one might add that the nature and extent of the political mistrust have become so endemic that GECOM’s handling of the 2011 poll might have attracted some degree of query and protest even if it had delivered an impeccable performance. However hard it tries GECOM will always be hard put to escape controversy as long as the circumstance of political mistrust prevails.

On the other hand, it is Dr. Surujbally’s own “lack of trust’ argument that makes the case for GECOM doing everything in its power to place itself beyond reasonable reproach. As it happens,  while it is understandable that Dr. Surujbally would want to defend the performance of the Commission which he heads, there are sections of entirely unprejudiced opinion that do not share his view on how GECOM acquitted itself during the 2011 poll.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we set aside the views expressed by both APNU and President Ramotar regarding pre and post-polling administrative glitches and irregularities on the grounds that such views might have been driven, to one degree or another, by the aforementioned “lack of trust,” there are still the opinions of the international observer teams which, we believe, are unaffected by such considerations that must be taken into account. Certainly, the Observer Mission from Organization of American States (OAS) found much which it felt was deficient in GECOM’s handling of the poll in circumstances where its findings can hardly be said to have been driven by those prejudices that might apply to political parties. More than that – and despite the high marks which Dr. Surujbally  gives the staff of GECOM for their performance – it will be recalled that some of those very performances elicited his own now famous “excursions into dotishness” remark. Those shortcomings, moreover, were deemed to be sufficiently serious to warrant the immediate removal of the delinquents.

The OAS Observer Mission, in its immediate post-polling report documented several anomalies that can be described, in some instances, as procedural shortcomings and in others as operational weaknesses on GECOM’s part. Most notable among these were the observations contained in the OAS Observer Team’s preliminary report regarding “voter confusion on the day of elections” resulting from the relocation of polling stations and “inefficient procedures and a lack of coordination in the processing and release of preliminary and final results.” These observations by the OAS Mission cannot be overlooked in seeking to arrive at an objective assessment of the manner in which GECOM acquitted itself at the 2011 poll.

The recommendations contained in the final report by the OAS Observer Mission relate directly to the operational weaknesses and procedural irregularities which it had documented in its preliminary report. Those recommendations have to do with the incorporation of “stringent deadlines for the electoral calendar and for changes in procedures prior to election day.” The report also urges “definition of the tabulation process and ensuring the chain of custody for election results” and “a complete review of the procedures for the transmission of results,” for “the declaration of both preliminary and final results.” Further, it calls for the institution of “additional mechanisms………to secure electoral material at all times.” Significantly, some of the shortcomings which these recommendations are intended to address were high on the list of stated reasons for post-elections protests.

If it is understandable that Dr. Surujbally might wish to make a positive case for the performance of GECOM, the broader observations made and concerns expressed – like those of the OAS Observer Team – also carry their own weight. In this context one wonders whether he should have ventured to pronounce on the extent to which GECOM is in need of reform. Even if one grants Dr. Surujbally that there is no “lack of integrity” on his part in his capacity as GECOM Chairman, the issues of “inefficiency and incompetence” are altogether different matters. There are documented instances of both shortcomings on GECOM’s part during its handling of the 2011 elections and Dr. Surujbally cannot reasonably deny that.

The extent to which GECOM may or may not be in need of reform must derive from a much broader swathe of opinion than Dr. Surujbally’s alone. Such an assessment must come from a thorough stakeholder analysis of the shortcomings that manifested in GECOM’s performance and we accept that Dr. Surujbally’s views are relevant in this matter. Nor do we necessarily agree that the OAS Observer Mission or any other observer who points to shortcomings and recommends reforms necessarily have a corresponding responsibility to “define reforms and what we are reforming.” Again, it is for the stakeholders, including GECOM itself, to examine the views and recommendations of the observers, objectively assess their validity and fashion reforms – or whatever other term one might use to describe the remedial measures that are applied – that seek to correct such shortcomings as might exist. If there is one thing that we know about GECOM it is that the role which it plays in our political process and in national life as a whole is sufficiently important for us not to take lightly the need to ensure that it enjoys the full confidence of the Guyanese people. The available evidence suggests that it does not at this time and turning that circumstance around must be an ongoing objective.

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