Electoral reform project gets thumbs down  

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…key stakeholders flay initiative as ill-conceived  

The much heralded electoral reform initiative seems headed for failures as key stakeholders here have flayed the project as ill-conceived even as they urge wider representation in any such programme.

Opposition Leader Joseph Harmon and a representative of the IRI

The project was conceptulised and if allowed to proceed will be run by the Republican-backed IRI, which has leanings to former US President Donald Trump.  Opposition Leader, Joseph Harmon together with Leader of the Alliance For Change (AFC), Khemraj Ramjattan, MP met with the IRI Resident Programme Director Dorota Ryzy and IRI Programme Officer Sara Bharrat last Tuesday where they complained about being left out of the planning of the project. The meeting was birthed out of a request from the Officer of the Opposition Leader after news surfaced that IRI was set to roll out the 18-month project to strengthen the capacity of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) and the Attorney General’s Chambers.

According to the IRI, through the project, civil society organisations will be encouraged to advocate for electoral reform in accordance with regional and international standards. Though being a major stakeholder in Guyana, Harmon said the Opposition, in particular, the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) was not consulted on the initiative.
He told the IRI Resident Programme Director that based on statements emanating from the Attorney General’s Chamber, the PPP/C may attempt to use the project serve its own purpose. “We believe that the PPP intend [on] using the IRI as an instrument to destroy the democratic processes in Guyana and to fortify themselves in office,” the Opposition said as he referenced to statements made by the Attorney General, Anil Nandlall.
Further the Harmon asked Ryzy to furnish his Office with the project’s Terms of Reference (ToR).

“We asked the Director what was their concept of an independent GECOM; how will they arrive at a position that was consistent with our political culture and the history of Guyana. This of course, she said, that they had no clear idea on how it will emerge but that they will consult with civil society and Guyanese on the way forward and how they are going to determine what, if any at all, reforms need to be made to the Elections Commission,” Harmon told reporters.

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The opposition also sought a working definition of the term “civil society,” and also expressed concern about the composition of the IRI Board of Directors, some of whom are Republican Senators, who, according to Harmon, have been promoting voter suppression in the US. Such actions, he expressed can impact the roll of the project in Guyana. The IRI representatives also met with GECOM on Tuesday, however, the meeting was aborted prematurely after concerns were raised about the lack of formal notification on the project from the government.

President of GHRA Michael McCormack

Also last week a high-level meeting with the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) and the IRI, intended to discuss the controversial project was aborted following objections from the three opposition-nominated commissioners. In an interview with reporters, moments after the abrupt end of the meeting, Commissioner Vincent Alexander explained that the opposition-appointed commissioners, himself included, expressed the need for the Government to formally inform the Commission on the project. “The opposition-appointed commissioners raised the question about IRI being engaged in such an exercise without the Government advising GECOM that this was what was happening or without the Parliament…having advised that it has given the go ahead for such a project by IRI,” Alexander explained.

He said given the concerns expressed by the opposition-nominated commissioners, the meeting came to a premature end to allow for the Government and the National Assembly to communicate to GECOM their position on the project.  Notably, he said there needs to be consultation among the major political parties on the project. However, should there be gridlock, Alexander opined that the matter should be sent to the Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC), ultimately the National Assembly for its consent.  “Our first and major concern is the dealing with the Register of Registrants. We are in a conundrum because of the legal ruling of the Court and the legislature has to find some mechanism that would allow GECOM…to create a new a new Register of Registrant, periodically. That’s our major concern. ” Alexander told reporters.

Further, he submitted that Guyana should not have to endure another round of National Recount as it did in 2020. “Probably we need to enshrine into our arrangement the role of the commissioners in terms of them being in receipt of SOPs and for the Commission to have the final determination on declaration of the result…” he posited.

Former Government Minister, Dr Henry Jeffrey in his Future Notes column appearing in the Sunday May 16, 2021 edition of the Village Voice News said in a liberal democracy, if for no other reason than that elections are the process that brings governments to office or causes them to lose it, electoral reforms cannot legitimately be the business of the government alone. “But the PPP/C government has unilaterally collaborated with the United States Embassy and proceeded to employ the International Republican Institute (IRI), to lead the reform process.”

According to the resident coordinator of the project, ‘The Institute is committed to working with all stakeholders in a participatory, inclusive, and transparent manner towards strengthening political and electoral processes in Guyana.’ According to the US Embassy, ‘Through this project, GECOM (Guyana Elections Commission), the Attorney General’s Chambers, and Guyanese CSOs  (civil society organisations) will collaboratively consolidate and improve local electoral and constitutional law knowledge, establish an internal timeline to address electoral reform, improve collaboration for joint advocacy actions, and prioritise electoral and constitutional law issues while promoting reform through citizen engagement.’

Jeffrey said all this sounds quite innocent, but as the struggle in the United States to install judges of one’s political orientation in the Supreme Court indicates, the ideological orientation of the organisations or persons chosen to lead this kind of project is of major importance and so one asks, who is the IRI?  He wrote that it is purportedly a non-partisan organisation founded in 1982 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan with a mission to ‘advance freedom worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law’ The majority of its board, staff and consultants are said to be drawn from the Republican Party.

Jeffrey said many have argued that the IRI advances republican causes and has been involved in regime change globally. For instance, the Director of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, to whom the IRI made a substantial donation claimed that, ‘Instead of promoting impartial, better understanding of certain ideas and concepts, they are actually trying to further the cause of the Republican administration.’ It is said that Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was re-elected as president of Haiti by a landslide in 2000 was ousted by a 2004 coup in which the IRI was involved. ‘The main IRI project in Haiti involved the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004’ (https://www.coha.org/a-hidden-agenda-john-mccain-and-the-iri/). According to the New York Times, the US Ambassador at the time accused the IRI ‘of trying to undermine the reconciliation process after disputed 2000 Senate elections threw Haiti into a violent political crisis. The group’s leader in Haiti, … an avowed Aristide opponent from the Haitian elite, counseled the opposition to stand firm, and not work with Mr. Aristide, as a way to cripple his government and drive him from power.’

“Now the opposition is up in arms. It holds that the last Republican government in the United States was involved in regime change in Guyana and although the IRI has had a lengthy relationship with Guyana, it was refused re-entrance by the then government and now opposition, to observe the Caricom-sponsored recount of the 2020 elections.  The PPP/C in collaboration with the US Embassy has gone ahead with the substantive task of employing persons to lead the reform process, leaving the Guyanese people with only procedural responsibility of determining how the project is done.

We are told that the reform project is to follow international best practices. According to which international standard was the US Embassy adhering when it employed the IRI to lead an electoral reform project that will affect all Guyanese with only the involvement of a government with a one seat majority in a deeply ethnically divided society? This is even more absurd when we consider that the opposition and its supporters, nearly half of the country, believe that the Embassy and the IRI were recently involved in regime change in Guyana!”

Meanwhile, the African Cultural & Development Association (ACDA also rejected the present US/IRI/PPPC plan, which is being thrust on the nation in the name of reforming the elections laws and by extension the governance of the country. In a statement Friday, ACDA condemned the IRI-led plan. “Constitutional Reforms of the electoral system is tied to the governance system, a national reality since the struggle for independence to the present: given the importance to the African Community and the Nation, ACDA views the exclusion of African Organisations, other stakeholders, and the Parliamentary Opposition from the initial process as an attempt to undermine the fundamental interest of the African Community and other groups.”

According to ACDA, it will not endorse the destruction of African-Guyanese interest even if the political party that the majority of African Guyanese empowered to be their political representatives chooses this path willingly or unwillingly. “Since these developments are taking place in the context of unprecedented wealth from our oil and gas resources ACDA calls on African Guyanese to be vigilant and not to be co-opted in a process designed to undermine our fundamental interest – that goes beyond elections. We say no to African-Guyanese exclusion whatever is the pretext,” ACDA stated.

ACDA also reiterated its position that the “Winner Takes All” system of Governance here prevents Guyana from reaching its full potential, discourages Guyanese from putting their best energies and talents to the country’s development which results in a racially and economically polarised Guyana that prevents Guyana from being true to its motto of one people one nation and one destiny. “The 2020 election crisis is a product of this un-workable form of governance,” ACDA.

The Executive Committee of the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) also deemed “untimely and ill-conceived” the electoral reform project. In a statement to the media on May 13, the Executive Committee stated that the intention of electoral reform is unlikely to be met through the IRI’s proposed strategy. The Committee said that not only was the project prematurely launched but it will only put Guyana in a worse position if executed during the early life of the current Government. “The timing of the project is wrong, the implementing Agency is unacceptable and the preparatory groundwork has not begun much less completed. While still a whole-hearted proponent of electoral reform, the GHRA is concerned that moving forward on this project will not only fail to achieve its goal but will also further postpone the prospects for the future reform that Guyana so badly needs,” the Committee stated.

“Launched prematurely, the reform process will inevitably become embroiled in the endless bi-partisan recrimination over the last elections rather than address the decades of structurally dysfunctional elections. To this extent electoral reform needs to come later in the life of the present Government.”

Apart from this, the Committee opined that the selection of the IRI to lead the electoral reform project is a “bizarre choice”. It said that while the IRI was useful in previous eras, unfortunately, this is no longer the case. “Board members listed on the IRI web-site is a veritable who’s who of the Republican establishment, including party grandees such as Senators Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and Dan Anderson. With the exception of Mitt Romney none of these IRI stalwarts have publicly distanced themselves from the Trump-led mayhem following the November US election results, nor from the persecution of Congresswoman Cheney for doing so, nor from the on-going Republican campaign to disenfranchise voters in traditionally democratic States,” the Committee pointed out.

It said that Guyanese have nothing to learn from an institution whose parent body is a leading influence in “global fascism”.  The GHRA recommended that if external electoral assistance is needed in Guyana, CARICOM in general and Jamaica in particular, would be the best place to start. This should be suspended.



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