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In my last column I argued that to be considered legitimate, governments must result from rules that are the outcome of a highly collaborative and consensual process, and that when one is considering socio/political issues in Guyana, it must be recognised that Guyana is a multiethnic, largely bicommunal, society without a substantial united public political opinion. Reforms will, therefore, have to win the support of a majority of members in each of the larger ethnic groups. Normal government consultations are not taken seriously in Guyana, but they are now universally expected, and the process that surrounded the 2000 constitutional reform confirmed that consultations on important political matters have to be properly structured and inclusive.
It would be extremely foolhardy to recognise and ignore a faulty process in the hope of disputing its undesirable outcomes. Underpinning all efforts to make serious changes must be committed legal, civil and political action at the national and international levels and this can only be optimised if based upon properly structured explanations of one’s goals and activities. Therefore, concerned stakeholders must approach these consultations not only with ad hoc media interventions but with a structured critique and an alternative vision that also demonstrates that on present showing the regime has no intention to properly consult.
At various places, the constitution and laws of Guyana speak to the need for the government to consult, and last week, based upon the British example I suggested some consultation principles that I believe could be useful in arriving at a consensual outcome. But principles are intricately linked to practice, and to indicate that the regime has no intention to properly consult, aspects of the government’s approach and proposals are considered below in relation to the British government code of practice on consultation (BCP) that sets out how consultation exercises are best run and what people have a right to expect from the government when it has decided to run a formal consultation exercise.
The government announced its present proposal as the ‘first set’ of amendments ‘the objective of which is to examine the process from registration to the declaration of the results, so that every stage of the process is unambiguous and transparent’. It claims that ‘This significant step in the electoral reform process is necessary to ensure Local Government, and, General and Regional elections are conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner.’ Not surprisingly, there are already broad criticisms of the preemptive nature and scope of the government’s proposed consultation.
As stated above, Guyana does not have a united public opinion – the propaganda of ethnic leaders largely rules the day. Unless there is a willingness to back down when confronted by alternative proposals, one cannot sensibly be seeking consensus on what arguably has been historically the most contentious political issue, if an ethnic leadership publishes and then vociferously supports its position in the public domain. In this context, retreating will not come easy and this in any case is a quality foreign to Guyana’s political leadership. The BCP suggested that ‘It will often be necessary to engage in an informal dialogue with stakeholders prior to a formal consultation to obtain initial evidence and to gain an understanding of the issues that will need to be raised in the formal consultation.’ This was certainly one of those times if the regime has any intention to seriously consult.
Furthermore, if the regime was sincere, the Constitution provides reform mechanisms that it could have used to make its initial presentation in a more neutral context and without severe political backlash. The UK code of practice warned that ‘there is no point in consulting when everything is already settled. The consultation exercise should be scheduled as early as possible in the project plan as these factors allow.’ This kind of approach has not been followed, and thus from my standpoint, the government stance and legislative proposals are intended to buttress its propaganda about the 2020 elections and facilitate self-interested electoral engineering.
The PPP/C’s government claims that its intention to create an environment for free and fair elections. However, its focus is upon elections events day when it is now widely recognised and Guyana’s history from the 1950’s provides good examples, that elections are best rigged long before elections day. Indeed, what took place around elections day in 2020 is a result of suspicions of massive electoral fraud – partly confirmed – that was in the making long before elections day. Therefore, to have free and fair elections, the scope of reforms needs to go much beyond what is being proposed and should not be done in the piecemeal fashion suggested by the regime. Commentators have rightly been arguing that one needs to consider, among other things, the electoral list and rules relating to voter eligible and identification, the structure and legal capacity of the Guyana Elections Commission, elections financing and the rules governing individual and group participation in regional and national elections.
Allow me to indulge in pure utopianism! The nature and scope of these consultations should not be restricted to what the government and/or the opposition want but to what Guyana really needs to be properly located within the democratic community of nations.