Stakeholders should contact Gecom for clarification about any matter concerning local government elections

Dear Editor,

The response from Mr Mike McCormack, which was published in the Stabroek News of Wednesday, August 21, 2013, under the caption ‘Gecom is treating civil society interest in elections as an unwelcome development,’ is most surprising.

Mr McCormack’s letter represents his response to a letter authored by me in my capacity as Public Relations Officer of the Guyana Elections Commission to draw attention to inaccuracies in the pamphlet on local government elections, which was produced by an organisation called Facing the Future (FtF).

Please let me state categorically that it never was, and it is not, Gecom’s intention to “put [FtF] organizations in their place over their pamphlet, aimed at educating the public about local government elections,” and my letter was certainly not “defensive,” especially considering that there is nothing to defend in so far as this issue is concerned.

Understandably, since Mr McCormack interpreted my letter as putting (FtF) organizations in their place, he penned a tit-for-tat response, perhaps in an effort to do damage control.  In so doing, however, Mr McCormack has raised several issues which I must now deal with.

Mr McCormack pointed out that the “two trivial examples provided” do not substantiate Gecom’s position that one particular statement (not “statements” as Mr McCormack stated) is very ambiguous.  He goes on the note that “indeed if these are all the errors to be found, the pamphlet’s accuracy is of a very high standard.”

At this stage it is imperative that I point out that (i) the two given examples in my letter are not the only two incorrect pieces of information in the pamphlet, and (ii) those examples were given only to corroborate Gecom’s position on the pamphlet.  Further, Gecom cannot, and will never, allow the dissemination of incorrect information about registration and elections, especially those of a nature which could affect the Commission’s work.  Ultimately, it is the Commission’s responsibility to implement corrective measures whenever incorrect information about Gecom’s work is being circu-lated.  This is simply what we sought to do through my letter.

Mr McCormack questioned why Gecom took “four years”, ie since the passage of the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act No. 26 of 2009, to commence working on a civic and voter education programme, and that “it may be nearer the truth that Gecom had completely ignored the Act until the civil society pamphlets started to circulate and is currently hustling to recover lost ground.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, in preparation for the holding of local government elections in 2010, Gecom had (i) spent millions of dollars on the production of pertinent audio visual messages to inform the public about the elections, (ii) held consultations at the Georgetown City Hall and at other prominent venues in New Amsterdam and Anna Regina, and (iii) had prepared a comprehensive
document delineating all aspects of the new electoral system for local government elections, copies of which had been given to all of the political parties which had indicated interest in contesting the elections.   Further, Gecom was in possession of (as it is now), a wide-ranging civic and voter education programme, which had to be shelved as a result of the inevitable abandonment of preparations for the conduct of local government elections in 2010, which Gecom was in a state of readiness to carry out.

It is essential for all concerned to note that Gecom is a budget agency with funds for its operations being provided by the government as approved by parliament.  Gecom does not have unlimited finances.  Gecom has been budgeting for the conduct of local government elections every year as a specific project.  Funds for elections projects are released to the Commission only if they were to materialize.  In view of this, the Commission always felt that it would be unwise to mount a civic and voter education programme for local government elections knowing fully well that the conduct of such elections was not in imminent.

It was always felt that value for the dollar would only be realized when the Commission would strategically implement a comprehensive and intensive civic and voter education campaign closer (about three months prior) to the date for local government elections.  Incidentally, would it not have been a waste of resources to have spent millions of dollars on civic and voter education activities relevant to local government elections in 2012, for example, and then having to repeat the same action again in 2013 to no avail?

Be that as it may, please permit me to repeat that Gecom recognizes the need for the publication of information pertaining to the new system for local government elections and will soon be mounting a civic and voter education programme to so do.  This activity, as part of a deliberate strategy (especially where timing is concerned), has been held back because of important, far-reaching uncertainties associated with the conduct of these elections.   However, the Commission is moving towards commencing the publication of pertinent information which is not necessarily linked to the conduct of local government elections, but which is more specific to the new electoral system.  In fact, the Commission has now completed educating our own permanent staff about the new local government elections system.
The concluding paragraph of Mr McCormack’s letter can only be seen as an accusatory attack on the integrity of Gecom.  The paragraph reads thus:-

“The letter deteriorates into panic-stricken condescension, suggesting that Gecom alone is specifically mandated by law to provide information and that everyone requiring it, particularly ‘the listed organisations and other organisations’ should contact Gecom before getting involved in the publication of information the like of which is carried in the pamphlet referred to above.

“Rather than use the pamphlet as an opportunity to engage constructively with FtF member organizations, Gecom, regrettably, is treating civil society interest in elections as an unwelcome, even threatening development. Seen in this light, the letter suggests a fearful, insecure institution, unwilling to risk offending the good graces of higher powers ‒ far from the confident, vigorous agency with vision and vitality that the country sorely needs in respect of elections.”

My previous letter on this matter, while conveying that Gecom is legally mandated to carry out civic and voter Education work, never sought to, and could not have given the impression that Gecom alone is “specifically mandated by law to provide information.”  In fact, in the second paragraph of my letter, I did note that “Gecom welcomes the attempt by FtF to play a role in providing information about the new system for local government elections, but the Commission cannot allow incorrect information be fed to the public.”  We stand by this position as would any organisation in a similar situation.  Further, it was in recognition of the actions of the FtF, which Gecom felt could complement the work of the Commission that we extended an invitation to the FtF, the “sponsoring organisations” and other organisations to contact Gecom for clarification and/or assistance on any matter concerning local government elections or any other relevant matter before getting involved in the publication of information.  We stand by this position.

Please permit me to denounce Mr McCormack’s most tendentious statement by emphasizing that Gecom is a constitutional Commission that is not “a fearful, insecure institution, unwilling to risk offending the good graces of higher powers.”  In fact, the Commission is a very confident body with a proactive vision and determination to carry out its mandates in compliance with the relevant laws and international standards pertaining to the conduct of election-related work.  Do not forget that it was this very Gecom which conducted the 2006 and 2011 elections following which there was no post-election violence.  Further, Gecom does not take orders from, nor does it benefit from the benevolence of the government or any political or other stakeholder.

In conclusion, please permit me the opportunity to once again laud the efforts of any stakeholder, as is the case with the FtF, to complement the work of Gecom.  However, I must reiterate that in so doing, such stakeholders should contact Gecom for clarification and/or assistance on any matter concerning local government elections or any other relevant matter before getting involved in the publication of relevant information.  It is hoped that all concerned would see this response as a genuine attempt to set the record straight in so far as the issues raised by Mr McCormack are concerned, and that this matter is now closed.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Persaud
Public Relations Officer
Guyana Elections
Commission

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