Guyana is replete with a kind of formalism that requests that we accept almost without question the possibility of actually compartmentalizing appropriate but conflicting moral roles, i.e. if a behaviour is logically possible once a claim is made that it exists, unless proven otherwise, it does! Successive governments have packed constitutionally-declared independent positions in the public service with high, even active, party officials and supporters and require that we accept that at the drop of a hat, these persons can easily manoeuvre between partiality and independence, when a mere glance at their behaviour cannot fail to indicate that to accept this construct would be at best unadulterated naivety.
Recently this approach raised its head with the appointment of the chair of the Guyana Elections Commission and the employment of Ms. Roxanne Prince-Myers as the deputy chief election officer. The appointment of the commission chairman is the more interesting case but I need to say a word about Ms. Prince-Myers. To counter accusations that since she had strongly supported the present regime during the last elections, she should not be considered sufficiently impartial for the position she now holds, she requested that ‘the judgment of my professional career, that should be the test for me, that should be the standard bearer, my professional career.’ Yet I doubt very much that if she was on trial for her life, she would have tolerated any juror who wrote unflattering things about her on similar grounds! More likely her attorney would have been protesting implied bias and demanding that ‘justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.’
I believe that the kind of moral compartmentalization we have just observed are usually intended to camouflage personal and collective interests but they only pass muster because there is a widespread belief that it is possible and easily done. The routine claims being made in the press and elsewhere that the Carter formula, which provides the conceptual framework for the appointment of the elections commission, is intended to establish an independent commission, is false but it is based upon this kind of moral belief and has already endangered the electoral process. The formula allows the establishment of a commission that is usually dominated by high party members and officials chosen by the parties themselves. Parties are what they are, namely partisan, and the governments they form are likewise expected to implement their partisan policies.
In passing, the ‘paramountcy of the party’ controversy, with which we are familiar, grew out of a similar kind of moral concern. It resulted from an early 20th century quarrel between the British Labour Party and the first government it was able to form. The party hierarchy wanted the government to strictly adhere to the policies that had brought it to office, but although they were also high party officials, the government leaders, wanting policy space, claimed that the party was by definition only part of the nation while the government must fashion policies for the nation as a whole. Yet, there is no gainsaying that governments are morally expected to fulfill party agendas.
The framers of the Carter formula could not have failed to recognise the partial nature of the elections commission and they could not possibly have hoped to convince any serious observer that it is or is intended to be independent. But, apart from the usually personal and collective self-interests, I think we feel obliged to perpetuate this myth because we believe that the commission should produce impartial outcomes and we cannot conceive of its doing so if it does not act independently! In other words, the independence we proclaim is a fiction that anchors a real world expectation. We are a largely religious people, so this kind of theorizing is not unusual.
But the commission does not have to be independent or impartial to perform its task effectively. The Carter formula is simply the localized application of an institution that has been in existence for centuries. In this highly ethnically divisive society, what it seeks to accomplish goes beyond its being independent: the proposers were trying to establish legitimacy by balancing the interests of the contending parties in a fashion that would provide an institution and outcomes acceptable to all.
Legitimacy is a central feature of all democratic political systems and their institutions. It exists when stakeholders have faith that the organisation will operate and produce acceptable outcomes. Someone once said that ‘power relationship is not legitimate because people believe in its legitimacy, but because it can be justified in terms of their beliefs.’ Independence, impartiality and fairness are only means for attaining legitimacy but many a time legitimacy is required in their absence, and the Romans were perhaps the first to invent the essential features of the Carter formula when they began to establish arbitration tribunals based upon equal sides choosing the chairperson. Reliance on these kinds of conflict resolution arrangements has become a standard feature of our civilization and at a most common level, they can be found in most of our collective labour agreements.
It is true that numerous electoral monitors have not stopped claims of manipulation after every election since 1992, and there is no reason they should. Professor Judith Kelley of Duke University, who analysed more than 600 elections monitoring missions, found that even in their presence politicians still attempted to rig votes 17% of the time. Indeed, after it was endorsed by most of the more reputable international elections monitoring bodies including the Carter Center, the results of the first Kenyan election in 2017 were overturned by the courts, which found multiple irregularities. It is well known too, that information technology, which has made election administration more efficient and transparent, has also improved our capacity to manipulate elections even across borders. So election manipulation is very much alive, but a commission that is viewed as legitimate is more likely to provide outcomes acceptable to all stakeholders and an environment conducive to development.
Please note that in this kind of context, legitimacy depends largely upon stakeholders acceptance not necessarily independence or impartiality. If, therefore, legitimacy is the goal, the decision that allowed one side to unilaterally choose the chairperson of the elections commission flew in the face of a tradition that existed centuries before the birth of Christ and thus has already severely undermined the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism, the process and most likely the outcome. Claims of the participants being independent, impartial, etc., only serve to conceal this wrongheadedness. There are other dimensions to this problem but here I only intended to draw attention to and check our general propensity to utilise moral concepts in a manner that could injure the body politic.