The proponents of change have not made a credible case for restructuring the Elections Commission

Dear Editor,

The recent OAS report on the Guyana elections has highlighted the call for reform of the Elections Commission. This is a popular item on the agenda of some observers and activists. The matter is usually given prominence after each general elections when at least one foreign observer mission recommends that the Commission ought to be comprised of persons who are independent of politics. The campaign is then renewed with some vigour and then dissipates. The situation may be somewhat different this time around. The WPA and AFC support the proposition and are now important components of the opposition majority in the National Assembly which has constitutional reform as one its most important objectives.

The reform of the Elections Commission is usually suggested because of perceived ‘problems’ with elections. These ‘problems’ have hardly been of  the Commission’s making. The issue at these elections which has given rise to the renewed call for reform is the delay in announcing results. The reason for the delay is the insistence of the Commission, for good reason, in awaiting the compilation of the results according to law before they are announced. This means that the lengthy legal procedures relating to the compilation of the results have to be adhered to.

A system for speedy announcement of preliminary results was designed and implemented successfully for the 1992 elections. The same system was implemented for the 1997 elections but management problems resulted in its failure to function. Nevertheless preliminary results were announced as soon as they came in to the offices of the Commission. The same procedure applied for the 2001 and 2006 elections. There had been concerns that even the  preliminary results were not as speedily available as elsewhere. There were also concerns expressed when one major Party is pulling ahead of the other with the usual allegations of partisanship being raised. It is not surprising therefore that on this occasion that, in the absence of a credible and acceptable system of speedily compiling and announcing preliminary results, that the Commission decided to await the certified results before announcing them.

It is not known whether this is the only issue which prompted the renewed call for the reform of the Elections Commission and what exactly are the concerns of other stakeholders in Guyana who are of the same opinion. Whatever the arguments, reasons have never been advanced to demonstrate how a differently constituted Commission will do a better job, in relation to the announcement of results or the leveling of the playing field, which was called for.

The variety of models of Elections Commissions of other countries are as varied as there are countries. The Bahamas has a Commission of one. India has a Commission of three for an electorate of about 800 million people.  Belize and Barbados have five members each. The fact is that each country fashions an Elections Commission in accordance with its own needs and circumstances.

Guyana has a specific history relating to elections which is directly responsible for the size and composition of the Elections Commission which the major political parties have always been comfortable with. And it cannot be ignored that the nature of its composition is evolving, some would argue for the better. For example there are no longer any overt political types on the Commission. The last two were myself and Robert Corbin in 2001. The only member who comes close to such a description is Vincent Alexander. But he has retired from active party politics. Some Commissions comprise nominees who are non-political, some a mixture of political and non-political, like the UK, and others, like Guyana, of nominees of political parties. There is no magic in having an elections commission with ‘independent’ members.

Dealing with the issue of changing the composition of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, its Chairman, Professor Errol Miller said, as reported in the Jamaica Gleaner of July 10, 2011: “The contemporary question that must be asked and answered is: Why should we now change the composition of the electoral commission in light of its proven effectiveness and the progress that has been made in the electoral system? Common wisdom is, if it is not broken, don’t fix it.”

The proponents of change have not made a case, or at least a credible one, that the structure of our Elections Commission is broken and needs to be repaired by a change in its composition to ‘independent’ persons. The further question to be decided is which non-political agency will nominate the non-political members because, surely, we cannot rely on the political parties to nominate non-political members.

And what criteria must be adopted to determine the non-political credentials of a nominee. It must not be forgotten that every Chairman of the Commission since 1992 has been nominated by the PNC in its evolving forms and agreed to by the PPP. Even though bias has been insinuated by the PNC or its supporters against most of the Chairs, their own nominees, who have had to endure hostile criticisms, it has not joined the call for reform.

The delivery of elections is beset by many problems and controversies which are rooted in the nature of our society and in the corruption of our electoral practices in the past. But every elections held in Guyana are an improvement on the previous one. Guyana will continue to make progress in elections management but we will not get there until suspicion is completely eliminated from  elections. Perhaps frustrated by the continuing suspicions and controversies, generated by contesting political parties, some seek a solution in a non-political membership of the Commission. There is no evidence that this is the problem. It lies elsewhere.

Yours faithfully,
Ralph Ramkarran

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