I am convinced that Guyanese on all sides of the current constitutional quarrel know that what is unfolding is an interactive pantomime largely being staged by the coalition government, which was caught off guard by the no-confidence vote but wants to hold on to government, and two main reasons are in the public domain as to why it wants so desperately to do so. Firstly, the play allows it to retrieve some political dignity among its supporters, for, having been given good notice and very badly managing the Charrandass Persaud affair, it now needs to show its supporters that it is as, if not more, intellectually nimble and able to play hardball politics as its opponents. Secondly, should it lose the upcoming national elections, it will leave its main constituency in a worse political position than it found it in 2015, and the no-confidence motion deprived it of the time it needs to be prepared to ‘win’ the 2020 elections, so it wants to retrieve that time and is doing so by playing games with the law and at the elections commission.
The minute the president presented the unsound notion that only judge-like persons could be members of the Guyana Elections Commission, it was clear that the regime’s sights were set upon capturing the commission, and this became a reality with his unilateral appointment of the chairperson. Regardless of what the Constitution may have intended in terms of the independence of the Commission, the process that was established to achieve that intention was extremely flawed and was exploited by the government.
I have argued before (SN: 27/06/2018) that Guyana is replete with a kind of formalism that suggests that if a behaviour is logically possible even if practice shows differently, once a claim is made that it exists, it does! As a result, ‘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 …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.’
Referencing the Carter formula for the selection of the chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission, I stated that, ‘The routine claims being made in the press and elsewhere that the Carter formula, … is intended to establish an independent commission, is false … The formula allows the establishment of a commission that is usually dominated by high party members and officials chosen by the parties themselves.’ Therefore, 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.’ Putting the issue of the appointment of the chairperson aside, the partisan behaviour that is now daily taking place around the commission should be more than sufficient practical proof that the above position is correct. However, if you need more direct evidence that these people have always been placed at the commission to look after the interest and carry out the wishes of their parties, go no further than a recent missive from former Minister Clement Rohee, a one time member of the commission, telling us of the PPP/C’s GECOM members caucus meetings (SN: 15/03/2019).
What we have in effect is the parties choosing people and directing them how to behave so the position that the GECOM is an independent body was from the very beginning a fiction. In normal circumstances, elections commissions are usually expected to be managed by independent persons, but in this the second decade of the twenty-first century, we could not even agree on an independent chairperson. Our kind of country requires consensual arrangements and GECOM was designed as a consensual body but that was destroyed when the chairperson was unilaterally appointed by the President.
As I also stated in the above article, the commission does not have to be independent or impartial to perform its task effectively: it has to be legitimate and this could be achieved 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. … Independence, impartiality and fairness are only means for attaining legitimacy (in normal conditions) but many a time legitimacy is required in their absence. The Carter formula establishes a body more akin to an arbitration tribunal based upon equal sides collectively choosing the chairperson.’
The weakness of the Carter formula resides in the fact that it did not follow this simple long historical precedent and allow the six persons chosen by the two parties to among themselves agree upon a chairperson. This would still have been problematical but such a formula would have prevented any side from getting the upper hand. Instead, a complicated but vague formula allowed the court, maybe also under the false notion that the commissioners are independent, to decide that ultimately the president can choose the chairperson.
Article 62 of the Constitution states that elections shall be independently supervised by GECOM, and a recent statement from the Ministry of the Presidency claimed that ‘President Granger cannot interfere in GECOM’s work. He has to be advised by the Commission of its readiness to host elections’ (SN: 15/03/2019). I have always assumed that presidents have to be advised by many agencies, GECOM being one of the most important, about the timing of elections and, although advice does not have to be accepted, it would be foolhardy to reject strong advice from GECOM that the elections cannot be held.
However, since the government’s capture of GECOM has transformed it from a consensual into a unilateral body, the regime does not have a mechanism through which it could convince those who oppose GECOM’s advice. The Commissions that advised the PPP/C governments were fundamentally different from the one that now exists. In effect what we now have is the president advising himself that he and his party are not ready for elections! This is indeed the stuff of pantomime.