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Political Analyst, Dr. Henry Jeffrey said it is an absurdity for the International Republican Institute (IRI) to impose itself on a sovereign nation like Guyana to aid in electoral reform but Leader of the Alliance For Change (AFC), Khemraj Ramjattan said Guyanese should not be too quick to dismiss the US-based organisation as he throws his support behind the initiative.
It was the U.S Embassy here in Guyana that had announced, earlier this month, the launch of the 18-month project to strengthen the capacity of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) and the Attorney General’s Chambers through electoral reform.
But the project, which is being supported by the US Department of State, has received major push back from the opposition-nominated Election Commissioners, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), the African Cultural & Development Association (ACDA) and other organisations and individuals.
Last Thursday, the issue took center stage on Politics 101 – a virtual show hosted by Political Scientist, Dr. David Hinds. It was during that programme that Dr. Jeffrey, who was among the panelists present, described the entire fiasco as an “absurdity.” Dr. Jeffrey, a former minister of government, said while it is widely accepted that electoral reform is required in Guyana, the process should not be imposed on the country, a sovereign nation, by the IRI or any foreign nation or organisation.
“I am saying that it should have never, never happened and I am not denying the need for expert, this thing [electoral reform] is very, very technical, believe it or not but who should choose the experts? Shouldn’t we sit down and come to a consensus about these experts?” Dr. Jeffrey reasoned. He said the decision to launch the electoral reform project in Guyana without the consent of the Guyanese people have in effect resulted in the IRI usurping the “substantive” decision making power of Guyanese.
Dr. Jeffrey said too that it is no secret that the IRI has been engaged in regime change across the world. He said the move to initiate electoral reform has left more questions than answers. “Now, the [IRI] country coordinator is going to say to us ‘we are going to be opened and transparent’ but where was the transparency in the choosing of the IRI in the first place?” the Political Analyst questioned.
But Ramjattan, an A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Member of Parliament, said while there was a number of missteps on the part of the IRI, such as its failure to adequately consult the Guyanese people on the project, it should be given a chance to aid in electoral reform in Guyana.
Ramjattan, who had served as the Minster of Public Security when APNU+AFC took office in 2015, recalled that in the lead up to the 2015 Elections, IRI had rolled out a number of projects and programmes in Guyana, for which, the coalition had supported while in Opposition pre-2015. The “VOTE LIKE A BOSS” campaign was among the projects carried out by the IRI at the time.
Further, Ramjattan, who had accompanied the Leader of the Opposition Joseph Harmon to a meeting with the IRI Resident Programme Director Dorota Ryzy last Tuesday, said many of the concerns expressed by the Opposition were addressed in that meeting. From the onset, the opposition during the meeting had expressed concern over IRI’s failure to consult with the Opposition on the project and more so its alignment with the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government.
“This whole subject of not communicating, she cleared all of that up,” Ramjattan said while noting that the project would be independently conducted by the IRI.
He added: “the consultations are going to be very serious and profound. It is not going to be as if they are coming to direct the show, what they want is to help.”
GRHA, in objecting to the IRI, had recommended CARICOM’s assistance but Ramjattan said given CARICOM’s involvement in the highly controversial 2020 Elections, it might not be the best option.
“In any event, the State Department now that is going to govern [the project] and have the guidelines on what happens with IRI is a Biden-led State Department, not a Pompeo-led State Department. So we need the assistance, it is coming from a Biden Administration and I am absolutely certain that all that happens in America, like voters’ suppression from the various Republican Senators and all of that, they are not going to push that here,” Ramjattan said.
He insisted that the IRI will ensure there is regular consultation and total transparency. He said Guyanese should be careful in just condemning the IRI as “an absurdity.”
But Dr. Jeffrey stood by his earlier sentiment. “My absurdity is the absurdity that we did not choose the IRI. Nobody should choose who leads electoral reform in Guyana, that’s my absurdity, not whether they are good or bad…”
He added: “the absurdity, Khemraj, is that it is being forced on you, that’s the absurdity, and you are now accommodating it and you are making the secondary decisions when you should have been making the substantive one on who is coming to Guyana to do this process.
Political Activist Mark Benschop, who was also part of the panel discussion, said no organisation should impose itself on a sovereign state as he endorsed the sentiments expressed by Dr. Jeffrey. Benschop said IRI cannot be a credible referee following its involvement in the 2020 Elections, which erupted into chaos and months of legal battles.
“The other thing that was rather suspicious is that there was no proper consultation before these people walked into Guyana and start to talk about electoral reform. The other thing that bothers me from that is that they are not seen around the country with persons who are independent thinkers, so to speak, or they are not seen with persons who may have some amount of allegiance to maybe the APNU+AFC, we are seeing them with a majority of folks who are PPP operatives,” the political activist observed.
Dr. Hinds also objected to the IRI’s involvement in electoral reform here. “It must be led by Guyanese and spearheaded by Guyanese, and secondly, I think that any agency that took a side in the impasse last year in that elections cannot now, after the elections turn up and say that it is a fair umpire, it cannot be a fair umpire, and whether that agency is CARICOM or the IRI or the OAS, all of them who took a side in what was clearly an impasse, clearly a disputed elections, I don’t see how they could help with electoral reform,” Dr. Hinds said.
In a statement last week, the Executive Committee of the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) deemed “untimely and ill-conceived” the electoral reform project funded by USAID and led by the IRI.
GHRA said 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.
It added: “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.”
ACDA, in a statement on Friday, had also registered its objection. “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,” it said.
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 and discourages Guyanese from putting their best energies and talents to the country’s development.