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Recent controversy surrounding the electoral reform project has focused almost entirely on two issues: the involvement of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and also which Guyanese have a right to be involved in electoral reform matters. Neither the wrong timing of the Government project nor the lack of preparation – the major concerns of the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) – attracted public comment.
Since IRI unsuitability relates only to what Republicanism has become under President Trump, all of the effort devoted to defending its prior activities was irrelevant.
Restricting the need for electoral reform to the APNU/AFC hijacking of the election, rather than recognizing electoral dysfunction as a systemic problem, serves to deflect attention from the ruling party’s equal responsibility for that dysfunction. There are no innocents in Guyanese elections.
A reform process focused only on the 2020 elections distracts attention from the fact that the structure of GECOM and selection of its Chairperson has been an issue for decades. In 1993, and regularly afterwards, the GHRA criticized as “flawed” an analysis of GECOM that focused on the personality of the Chair rather than the composition of the Commission. “This analysis based on personalities – Burnham and Bollers were villains – Collins & Co heroes, was not helpful.” This remains true almost 30 years later. The notion that the skullduggery of the 2020 elections are one-off is a myth.
Focusing on 2020 also conveniently grounds the ruling party’s attempt to exclude any individual or institution not prominent in denouncing the APNU/AFC from engaging in electoral reform. The GHRA, for example, is accused by the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) of not issuing ‘a murmur’ during the electoral crisis and therefore has no right to involve itself at this point. Apart from being bogus, this is also untrue as regards the GHRA which ’murmured’ four Press Releases in February and March 2020 on elections-related matters: election monitoring (Feb.20th); on SOPs (March 6th); calling on GECOM Chair to Get On With it (March28th) and on CARICOM Observers (June 15th) .
The fundamental problem is that in Guyana we do not do politics. Politics is a never-ending search for compromise among competing ends, all perceived to be good by one group or another. Against this definition of politics as compromise, the daily fare of the political class in Guyana – denouncing, threatening, vilifying and polarizing – constitutes demagoguery, i.e. anti-politics. This disguises the fact that the best insurance policy for defending each group’s long-term interests is by working and encouraging other groups to achieve theirs. Instead we do the opposite, we elect politicians not to conciliate over diversity but to vindicate ethnic injustice, thereby ensuring that moderates will always be outflanked by extremists.
This trend ensures Guyanese have little opportunity to recall that getting along amicably was much more in evidence in daily life in Guyanese communities prior to the politically-inspired ethnic riots of the 1960s. Opportunities for remembering and learning lessons are closed off as history is conflated with myth.
What politics has become in Guyana is a deterrent to the average Guyanese who are more naturally inclined to compromise than to demagoguery. This challenges major civic bodies – the faith-based, professional bodies, trade unions, cultural associations, business and non-governmental bodies – to become alternate sources of civic values, nurturing civilized approaches to policy-making. In recent decades, the rise in political demagoguery has been matched by the decline of civic energies. In part, the traditional community-based sources of leadership talents in small spaces such as trade unions and religious organizations have been superceded by the global obsession of seeking individual celebrity status through intensely competitive media platforms.
All sectors of Guyanese society, including the diplomatic and inter-governmental influences, should contribute to a foundation for meaningful electoral and constitutional reform. Rather than trying to by-pass or be ‘above’ politics, their forms of international engagement should aim to transform rather than reinforce local political short-comings. Dispersal of funding, for example, to a Ministry to address poverty or violence against women and girls should be strictly conditioned on creation by the relevant Ministry of bi-partisan decision-making mechanisms, advancing the values of compromise and diversity referred to above.
From the Referendum of 1978 onwards, but particularly from the GUARD movement of the early ‘90s, the principal political beneficiary of civic electoral activism has been the PPP. That debt was never acknowledged, nor gratitude expected. Reform activists over the years did what they thought to be right and appropriate as citizens. In light of this, the current attempt to create Hall of Fame status for those considered heroes of the post 2020 elections is cheap, divisive and dangerous. A less sanctimonious approach to life by the ruling party would be welcome.
Guyana Human Rights Association