Given Guyana’s current “difficult political climate” and “potential security situation”, a United Nations (UN) assessment team has found that there are various possible risks to future electoral processes, with the non-acceptance by the losing party at the 2020 elections being seen as the primary one.
“The electoral processes, particularly the 2020 elections, will no doubt heighten underlying ethnic tensions,” the UN Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) notes in the executive summary of its report, before recommending that the UN must provide requested technical assistance to the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) in a manner that recognises the environment. “In such a sensitive political environment, with widespread mistrust among political actors across public institutions, including GECOM, the UN must provide its technical assistance in a clear framework and the parameters, responsibilities and limitations need to be properly communicated to stakeholders and the public in general,” it adds.
The mission was conducted between May 7th and May 11th, 2018 at GECOM’s request for technical assistance in information and communication technology and the provision of expertise in database and information management systems, including the transmission of elections results.
In the executive summary of its report, the NAM noted that GECOM has the capacity to organise the electoral processes in Guyana with minimal international support. However, the main point of concern, NAM said, remained the accuracy of the voters list, the system of tabulation, and the transmission and announcement of results, which is considered too long by most stakeholders.
It said that senior government officials, among interlocutors, mentioned the need to create a new voters list for the 2020 elections as many stakeholders perceive the list to be “considerably inflated,” and that a house-to-house registration be conducted. Critics of the proposal for a new voters list have suggested that the existing list could be cleansed by various means. The NAM said, “There is no certainty that a new voters list will have more credibility than the current list and that stakeholders will trust it more. Furthermore, any list created close to the elections will likely be criticised as politically motivated.”
The NAM said it found that “all interlocutors have agreed that the country is undergoing tense political discourse dominated by the lack of trust between the two main political parties.”
Ethnic violence has characterised Guyana’s elections prior to gaining political independence in 1966 until about 2006, the NAM noted.
Despite the potential threat of violence in the upcoming electoral process, the NAM said, some believe that the APNU +AFC coalition had contributed to bridging the ethnic divide, thereby minimising the possibility of Guyana returning to the level of violence witnessed in past elections.
The NAM said it hoped that non-violence messaging done by political parties in 2015 are reinforced in upcoming elections.
The NAM found that “Some interlocutors raised concerns about the judiciary’s ability to fairly and expeditiously resolve electoral complaints.”
Saying that the UN should respond positively to GECOM’s request for UN technical assistance to aid in voter registration and the general elections process in 2019 and 2020, the NAM recommended that priority area of assistance should include database management, systems design, software development to improve the integrity of GECOM’s database, including voter registration, and a solid results transmission system. As done in the past, the NAM recommended that the UN should continue to play a significant role in supporting different/civic/voter education initiatives aimed at promoting a peaceful electoral environment and acceptance of the electoral results.
It recommended that it should continue to support efforts towards gender mainstreaming and promote the participation and representation of women, traditionally underrepresented groups, minorities and persons with disabilities. The NAM’s report said the UN should provide a coordination mechanism for members of the international community to ensure coherence and avoid duplication of any potential support to the 2018 local government elections and the 2020 general elections.
Throughout the electoral process, the NAM said, the political situation should be closely monitored to assess the needs for further UN political engagement, primarily through the UN Resident Coordinator/United Nations Development Programme’s Resident Representative, Guyana.
The NAM noted that while UN electoral support was necessary to improve the technical aspect of the process, GECOM needs to engage in activities/initiatives, including effective communication with different electoral stakeholders in a regular and systematic manner and regular consultation with key stakeholders to ensure transparency at all stages of the process and to build trust and confidence in the electoral process.
Meanwhile, in relation to the NAM report and GECOM, PPP/C-nominated Commissioner Robeson Benn, in a letter to the press published on August 10th, said that at the August 7th statutory meeting of the Commission, GECOM Chairman Justice (ret’d) James Patterson “mystified the Commission” when he stated that he had cancelled “indefinitely” a meeting scheduled for 5 pm that same day to review the NAM report.
Benn said when asked why the meeting was being cancelled, “The Chairman alluded to information which he said he had been made aware of, with respect to the engagement and report which he could not divulge.”
It appeared, he said, the Chairman had received copies of the NAM report at least one week before when a question of a meeting was first discussed, and he only released the report to the commissioners on the evening of August 6.
Benn said he urged that the meeting should be pursued as arranged because of the peremptory nature of the “cancellation,” the need for good faith engagement with the UN on the issue of elections, because of the findings they were providing, and the evident need for assistance “even if the meeting later that day would be treated as only the first one on the report and the proposal.”
Benn said that a dangerous precedent was being set in which the Chairman cancelled the meeting without engaging other commissioners and no acceptable explanation was given for the cancellation.
Eventually, he said, the matter was put to a vote and the Chairman, three APNU-nominated commissioners and one PPP/C-nominated commissioner voted to go along with the Chairman’s cancellation.