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No Guyanese could be surprised at the quarrel that broke out between the government and the opposition about the appointment of the new chief executive officer (CEO) of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), Mr. Vishnu Persaud. In a letter to the press, Mr. Vincent Alexander, one of its PNC-orientated Commissioners, made a case that ‘GECOM failed in its responsibility to embrace transparency and best practices. Its decision to appoint Mr. Persaud reeks of partisan and bias pre-dispositions.’ He claimed that GECOM is ‘a dysfunctional and corrupt system and [this] explains why a neutral panel of human [resource] practitioners was rejected although it is a Best Practice in the field of Human Resource Management’ and that this, together with the remainder of his presentation, ‘raises many questions about GECOM`s institutional arrangements and adherence to procedures.’
Last week I claimed that the concept of “ethnic blindness” holds that we should avoid taking ethnic categories into account when decisions are made, impressions are formed and behaviours are enacted; everyone should be treated as an equal human being. Furthermore, even though the vast majority of Guyanese recognise that there is a substantial ethnic problem, having been socialised in a British colonial cultural and constitutional context, where the notion of ethnic assimilation is still strong and the ethnic majoritarianism of the PPP prevalent, Guyanese are prone to ethnic blindness which allows even those who discriminate to use neutral categories to camouflage their behaviour.
Mr. Alexander believes that the problem would have been avoided if ‘a neutral panel of human [resource] practitioners’ was appointed to recommend the person best suited to be the CEO. Although he knows how deeply politically/ethnically divided Guyana is and should recognise the commission as the political hub of the ethnic dispute, like most of those who commented on this issue, Vincent is ethnically blind and thus failed to account of the fact that Guyana is not like other largely homogeneous countries for which those best practices were devised. Please note that the present ‘dysfunctional and corrupt’ GECOM was intended to be a neutral body. So, in the present raucous political context, what criteria would have been acceptable to the contesting parties and who would have chosen the neutral human resources panel? If not GECOM, the even more -as some would have it – ‘dysfunctional and corrupt’ politicians?
The problem is not with the structure of the commission; it is with the competitive ethnic context in which it has to operate, wherein losing is an unacceptable option for either side. Since we are dealing with ethnic political competition, to call upon the players to stop playing ‘the race card’ is useless. Indeed, since they receive their support and votes from an ethnic group, it is similarly utopian to ask them not to discriminate, for even if they did not discriminate the ethnic entrepreneurs on the other side would ‘prove’ to their constituents that they did since they cannot sufficiently neglect their supporters to avoid such an interpretation. In other words, in Guyana’s political context, organising politics around ethnicity is unavoidable.
The Carter formula is not ethnically blind: it represents the theoretical requirement that all important electoral issues must be agreed upon by the representatives of substantially all of us, and the ethnic reality that existed at that time it was devised is still relevant today. Thus, the formula gave an equal number of seats to the government and opposition, which in Guyana’s context translates to the two large ethnic groups, and a neutral chairman as essentially a tiebreaker. But reforms to encapsulate the Carter vision did not go far enough. Thus a very frustrated Carter left Guyana in 2004 with the following words. ‘Jagdeo is an intelligent and capable leader, but he takes full advantage of the ancient “winner take all” system in Guyana. Following my meeting with him, I was very doubtful that his political party (PPP) would commence new dialogue with the PNC, be willing to make any substantive moves to implement the National Development Strategy, share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from party list on a proportional basis.’ Carter did not return until after the PPP lost its majority in 2011 and it appeared that progress could be made,
GECOM is politically/ethnically divided and so the chairperson has developed from being a tiebreaker into being the commission on the most important/controversial matters, and by appointing Mr. Persaud, she demonstrated political/ethnical blindness. She claimed to have listened to the commissioners and with the endorsement of a former chairperson and in light of Persaud’s knowledge (note the absence of the required academic qualification) gained from years of working at GECOM, assessed him to be the person most suited for the job. Apart from technical competence, at an objective level how could she not see that in the context of Guyana, neutrality should have been given a premium in selecting the CEO. Yet, since all the applicants are equally neutral, she disregards not only the superior academic qualifications of the Jamaican Leslie Harrow but the fact that he is likely to be more neutral! True he is African, but did Caricom nationals not demonstrate their ‘neutrality’ during the disputed 2020 elections?