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Here we have what could well be argued is an interim president/government facing election petitions unilaterally establishing a commission of inquiry (COI) into the elections he/it is accused of rigging before the courts have reached a determination on the petition to determine whether the government is legitimate! It is universally understood that in a democracy matters having to do with electoral arrangements, particularly those that are likely to affect who rules, require broad consultations with other political groupings and civil society.
Last week, in a letter to the press the byline of which did not accurately reflect what took place, the PPP members on GECOM showed some appreciation of the need for inclusiveness. They explained that ‘The decision taken by the Chair of GECOM is that the Chief Election Officer immediately writes to the governing political party, the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C), and other parliamentary opposition parties informing them of the request of APNU+AFC and soliciting their views. This decision was …. done in the interest of fairness and transparency.’ Yet where this ‘fairness and transparency’ is most required, as in the appointment of the COI, it is avoided!
Kenya held its disputed national elections on 9th August 2022, and the resulting elections petition was heard and completed less than a month later on 5th September 2022. Guyana had its elections in March 2020 and two and a half years later, the legitimacy of the government is still in a limbo. While this is a not an unusual aspect of the dysfunctional nature of democratic governance in Guyana, the current regime has taken this democratic deficit to another level. Never before has an interim government, which claims that GECOM cannot do an internal review of its operations during the still disputed 2020 elections because it is likely to affect the election petitions before the court, so brazenly and unilaterally established a COI with its own hand-picked commissioners and terms of reference to examine the events that took place during those elections! This is one further step towards the democratic abyss.
The COI is to complete its investigation and make recommendations within seven months. Its remit ‘is not limited to, but includes the counting, ascertainment and tabulation of votes polled and the public declaration of those results by the Returning Officer of Electoral District No. 4 and other election officers, as prescribed by sections 84 to 89 of the Representation of the People Act, Chap. 1.03… what attempts, if any, were made to obstruct, frustrate, subvert and prevent the counting, ascertainment and tabulation of votes polled and a declaration of the true results of Electoral District No. 4 as prescribed by sections 84 to 89 of the Representation of the People Act, Chap. 1:03, and by whom.’ It will also investigate what attempts, if any, were made to obstruct, frustrate, subvert and prevent a decision of the Guyana Elections Commission made on 14th March 2020, to conduct a national recount of the votes polled at the elections and by whom. Additionally, the COI will make ‘such recommendations at it deems fit and necessary in order to permit GECOM to discharge its statutory functions as prescribed by the relevant pieces of legislation’
From its broad remit, the COI cannot avoid impacting upon the ongoing election petitions and the interests of former GECOM employees such as former Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield and District Four Returning Officer Clairmont Mingo. Among Vice-President Bharrat Jagdeo’s objections to an internal elections review was that matters pertaining to the elections are before the court. However, the vice-president has, since last evening, fallen in line in supporting the president’s COI (‘Appointment of COI deliberate to thwart election petition proceedings – MP Forde:’ VV 22/06/2022). The Opposition holds a similar position and also believes that the COI is intended to thwart the elections petitions and thus cannot be blamed for not participating in this untransparent and undemocratic process.
The regime appears to believe that the populace should be impressed when it trots out the legal qualifications, experience and perhaps even ethnicity of the COI commissioners it has chosen. However, what the quarrels over the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court of the United States and the refusal of various governments to confirm Guyana’s top judicial officers in their positions teaches is that the ideological orientation of those who come to these decision-making positions is as, if not more, important than their judicial qualifications. The regime would want to focus this commission on the statement of polls (SOPS) that resulted from the 2020 elections and thus may have sought to choose judicial conservatives. However, one must hope that, whatever the law may say, elections are best rigged long before elections day and what took place on elections day in Guyana should not be allowed to stand alone. Countrywide, the many irregularities that were detected on elections day gave rise to suspicions that developed into disputes and ultimately a recount process that exposed thousands of elections illegalities.
Last week I argued that the major objective of the PPP’s government is to furtively establish ethnic/political dominance and that this requires a profligate managerial environment that gives the PPP carte blanche to dispense state resources to bribe and cajole the population into doing its bidding. Independent or semi-independent institutions are a humbug and all important areas of social life must fall directly under the control of the regime and its supporters. It cannot control what a GECOM review process might expose but a COI with its own handpicked persons and TOR is more manageable.
Only 22% of the people of Guyana believe the government to be legitimate. The Caricom recount during the 2020 elections process has thrown up myriad illegalities which suggest that the PPP, Cheddi Jagan’s party, was at the heart of the 2020 elections manipulation. Whatever other objectives it may have, the COI could be a useful propaganda tool that focuses on elections day and SOPS and hopefully to reduces this stigma and so helps to increase the regime’s legitimacy.