In February this year, the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) sent a letter to the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Guyana requesting UN electoral assistance for the 2018 local government and 2020 general elections. The request, which included Information Technology assistance, had not been publicised by GECOM and what is publicly known about the matter is as a result of media reports.
Following the request for assistance, a team from the UN visited in early May on a scoping mission. The public became aware of this visit as a result of a news item issued by the Attorney General’s Chambers. The release, accompanied by a photograph of the visitors with Attorney General, Basil Williams SC said that the discussion covered a range of issues that would be dealt with in preparation for the Local Government and General elections.
“Those issues are the results tabulation process; developing the necessary software to expedite the process; the biometric instrument used at polling stations; verifications of electoral listings; and to ensure security at the polling stations”, the release had said, adding that the UNDP would render support and guidelines in those capacities and where else necessary. It added that at the end of the visit a report would be prepared with recommendations which would be submitted to UNDP Guyana. Mr Williams in the release also pledged his support for the process between GECOM and the UN. The areas of assistance listed in the release from the Attorney General’s Chambers are substantive and sensitive.
In June, in his first public comments on the matter, GECOM Chairman, Justice (ret’d) James Patterson while declaring the recent visit by the UN team a success, expressed confidence to Stabroek News that his request for an internationally recruited Information Technology specialist would be granted. He added that once a candidate had been identified, the Commission would have the final say.
“I can say with some assurance that nothing has been finalised but we are not far from that,” Mr Patterson told Stabroek News during an interview.
Since that June pronouncement there has been no further word from Mr Patterson even though GECOM has received the UN report on assistance. PPP/C-nominated GECOM 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 Mr Patterson “mystified the Commission” when he stated that he had cancelled “indefinitely” a meeting scheduled for 5 pm that same day to review the UN report.
Mr 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.”
Earlier this month, when asked by Stabroek News about the matter, Mr Patterson was not very forthcoming. “There is no movement. When there is you will be informed,” he said.
With Local Government Elections (LGE) set for November 12 it would appear that there isn’t enough time for well-structured assistance by the UN to GECOM. The question is why. Why did GECOM write to the UN for assistance, prompting the visit of a mission and now try to avoid the matter? Has Mr Patterson changed his mind on accepting assistance? If this is the case he should state so and provide the reasons for such. It would appear that the government-appointed members of GECOM – two named by APNU/PNCR while in opposition and the third by the WPA – are not pressing for the UN assistance to be addressed as they have said nothing publicly about it.
There is no reason why if there are urgent needs for electoral personnel that these cannot be filled by Guyanese. These candidates would, however, in the parlance of today have to be “fit and proper” and not compromised by their associations with one group or another. This would be particularly so in the sphere of information technology given the sensitive security issues which would be encompassed. GECOM has not even said publicly whether it has found a local candidate and whether all of its potential needs for the upcoming LGE have been requited.
The Chairman and GECOM must issue clear answers on these matters. Rigged general elections under the PNC between 1968 and 1985 unfortunately led to a longstanding distrust among stakeholders in the realm of electoral matters which has not disappeared even with sweeping electoral reforms. All elections since 1992 have seen generous offers of aid from the UN, the US, the UK, Canada, the European Union and a host of elections-related bodies. Where these offers have been conducive to the proper conduct of elections they have been accepted and implemented by GECOM. The various offers, the continuing interest of donor countries and the mounting of observer missions have all helped to instil confidence in the electoral processes given the climate of suspicion that often attends them.
The reticence by Mr Patterson on the question of UN aid which had been requested by GECOM raises troubling concerns. Do the needs identified in the original request by GECOM to the UN still exist? If so why hasn’t GECOM acted on the UN offer? If the needs no longer exist, who filled them and have these persons been vetted by the full commission? Assistance by donors to the scheduled general election in 2020 will undoubtedly be needed in a whole host of areas including building confidence in the voters list and transmittal of official results. Mr Patterson and GECOM have to be exceedingly careful in handling these offers lest it appears that efforts are being made to frustrate donors and therefore undermine confidence in the electoral process.
Mr Patterson would also be aware that he was controversially handpicked by President Granger in one of the most egregious acts of unilateralism in the recent history of the country. That act has therefore left half of the country with a wary view of Mr Patterson. The Chairman can therefore ill afford any act that would add to concerns about his role on GECOM particularly in matters that could undermine confidence in preparations for elections. A clear statement is needed from the Chairman to the public on the offer of UN electoral aid and why the matter has not been proceeded with at GECOM.