Local government elections are to be held on November 12th. With the polls, the never-ending stream of suspicions have emerged as the Government established new local government units and merged others. The Opposition argued that these were done to give an advantage to the Government and the Opposition, through one of its representatives, promptly launched legal proceedings. This event provided the explanation for the ‘disappearance’ of the Chief Election Officer, Mr. Keith Lowenfield, on one of the most critical days of the elections process, after the submission of lists, when corrections have to be made and defects rectified.
Ominously, Returning Officers were accused by the Opposition of declining or refusing to exercise their authority, or were unaware that such authority existed. Did it have to be on this particular day that Mr. Lowenfield had to attend his lawyer’s chambers to sign an affidavit, a process that takes no more than an hour, counting the travelling time from GECOM’s High Street Office to the Attorney General’s Chambers in Carmichael Street, a ten-minute drive away? Disappearing acts of election officials or being incommunicado at critical moments of the elections process have a particularly sordid history. For the future, it is hoped that at important junctures the Chief Election Officer will be available at all times, day and night, to his senior staff, Election Commissioners and the Chairman. Returning Officers should be similarly available to selected officials of contesting parties and be helpful rather than obstructive. Their duty is to solve problems, not to create them, and to exercise flexibility and discretion in removing obstacles to the smooth flow of the elections process, without violating any law. This is what their training should emphasise.
At the press conference last Friday, when Mr. Lowenfield gave his explanation for being incommunicado, the Chairman made some scathing remarks on the issue of ethnicity. He said: “It seems to be that our politicians have retreated into ethno-political camps…. I personally have done all that is humanly possible to weld the opposing factions together. It seems that things are getting worse.” The basis of the complaint appears to be that GECOM “has deliberately been putting more Afro Guyanese in positions than Indo Guyanese.” This was denied. But the Chairman’s remarks appear directed to the PPP.
It is not the first time that the Chairman has sought to address the issue of ethnic imbalance in the make-up of the permanent and temporary staff of GECOM. The basic reason given by the Chairman, namely, that employment is based on competence in examination, leaves open the interpretation that African Guyanese are more competent than Indian Guyanese. With due respect to the Chairman, that is not so and is not the real reason. Historically, applicants for positions on GECOM have come predominantly from the African Guyanese community. During the 23 years that the PPP/C was on government, this situation largely persisted although some success in rebalancing was achieved, which has now been reversed. There is an argument that GECOM should consider adjustments to its recruitment process to encourage more Indian Guyanese to apply. No such thing appears to be under consideration.
The Chairman cannot be oblivious of the electoral history of Guyana and who the immediate victims of that history have been. The Chairman also cannot be oblivious of the fact that as soon as the PNCR returned as the dominant component in the Government, painful controversies began, including those surrounding his own appointment as Chairman. The Chairman should therefore not be surprised that a large dose of poison has been poured over the electoral system which has resulted in increased suspicion over the conduct of elections and the ethnic composition of the elections staff. Complaining about ethnic imbalance in the critical area of elections management does not consist of retreating into ‘ethno-political camps.’ In our recent history it was considered to be infra dig to object to policies on the ground of racism or ethnic imbalance. This is no longer the case. Ethnically-based organisations and political parties now consider it their duty to complain about these issues.
The Chairman appeared to be concluding that politicians retreating into ethno-political camps is a new phenomenon. And he appeared to be confining his remarks to one political party. But sadly, this retreat manifested itself in the 1950s and cannot be alleviated except by creating the constitutional arrangements which will facilitate collaboration by our two main political parties and reduce the ethnic friction that Chairman Patterson complained about. The APNU+AFC coalition promised to address the issue in its election manifesto and put forward serious proposals such as separate presidential elections, the candidate winning the second largest number of votes being the prime minister and every party winning over 15 percent of the votes having a share in the government. But the Government has failed the Guyanese people by refusing to implement its solemn undertaking. And, so, our ethno-political dilemma persist and will continue into the future until addressed by the Government in the manner suggested.
All this is occurring against the background of arguments on a legal challenge to the Chairman’s appointment having just been concluded in the Court of Appeal. These challenges suggest that the controversies will not end anytime soon.