Last Friday’s meeting of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) saw the secretariat, headed by the chief election officer, proposing a timeframe of March next year as the earliest date for general elections which should have already been completed by March 21 of this year.
The technical people at the secretariat have no doubt proposed this date given the earlier decision of GECOM to consider the merging, with the National Register of Registrants (NRR), of data from the ill-starred House-to-House (HtH) registration exercise which was launched even though the illegally-appointed GECOM chairman had been aware that there was a requirement for elections to be held in three months in accordance with the December 21, 2018 motion of no confidence and that HtH registration could not be completed in this period.
GECOM has now arrived at the point where there is an intractable dispute between the two sides about when the General and Regional Elections (GRE) should be held. The GECOM chair, retired Justice of Appeal Claudette Singh has expended valuable time on the constitutional clock since her appointment on July 29, attempting to reach a political deal to the detriment of constitutional adherence. The GECOM chair now has to decide whether she herself will observe the constitution, having been one of its ardent defenders while she sat on the bench. She has only one option now before her to preserve respect for the constitution and uphold the rule of law. The merging of HtH data with the NRR has to be abandoned. Only entirely new registrants from the HtH exercise must be added to the NRR, a Preliminary Voters List issued and a period of claims and objections launched. This is what GECOM must advise the elections secretariat to work towards and that advice should produce general elections before the end of the year.
The constitution has been defiled by the executive through President David Granger’s refusal to initiate the resignation of Cabinet, dissolve Parliament and proclaim a reasonable date for elections. His toying with the constitution will no doubt be an issue that the electorate will judge him and his government on. The government’s disrespect of the constitution does not mean that it is fated to be so ill-treated by other stakeholders. Ms Singh now has the opportunity to decide where she stands even though her ruling in the Esther Perreira election petition case sets a precedent for early elections and constitutional respect.
Once she has completed advising President Granger on an early date for elections there is major work to be done. Given the winner-takes-all nature of the ultra-competitive contest for general elections, further fuelled by the anticipation of major oil wealth in the coming years, Ms Singh and other GECOM stakeholders will be acutely aware of the high stakes surrounding the contest for the next GRE. Therefore, GECOM must begin to immediately work on meeting its information technology needs via the United Nations and other willing agencies.
Expertise is necessary to ensure the integrity of the registration database and the collation and issuing of results after the elections. There must be no compromising in this area particularly in light of the growing sophistication of hacking techniques. GECOM will also be well aware of the need for sufficient scrutineers to be available for the approximately 1,800 polling stations and for the accreditation of as many reputable observer groups as possible to provide comfort to the electorate and independent assessments of how voting went. . Their involvement in monitoring the elections would be most welcome.
The major decision that now confronts GECOM and the advice to be given to the President in relation to the timeline for holding general elections also has a fundamental bearing on another approaching crisis: what becomes of the government after September 18, 2019 if there is no fiat from the 11th Parliament for an extended period for elections and what becomes of Parliament itself? Those are added complications the country can well do without at this point. The government has effectively been functioning as a caretaker administration since December 21 last year featuring diminished authority and no doubt necessitating the downgrading of high level contacts by friendly governments and international agencies. Its position will become even more tenuous after September 18 if there is no agreement to extend the period for elections.
With a small electorate, holding general elections is not rocket science and doesn’t require up to March next year and beyond. In the past, election dates have been fixed and elections held within months without any major hassle. The last two general elections are cases in point. In 2011, parliament was dissolved on September 27 and on October 9 the election date of November 28 was fixed. The process was completed within 60 days—one month less than the three months which have always been mandated by the constitution in the event of a motion of no-confidence. In 2015, the elections won by APNU+AFC, after proroguing Parliament on November 10, 2014 to avoid facing a motion of no confidence, President Ramotar on January 21s2015 named May 11t 2015 as the date for general elections. Elections were held comfortably in this process and that period could most likely have been shortened. The GECOM Chair will undoubtedly be aware of these precedents.
Another moment of truth has arrived for the Constitution. It is now up to the GECOM Chair to act in defence of the Constitution and to recognise the right of the people to vote at new elections consequent to the passage of a motion of no confidence.