Last Tuesday three past presidents and the current one held a forum at State House, according to Mr David Granger. It was, in effect, a “Think Tank” which cut the entire state paper smoothly. Hardly. Apart from the fact that mills are of a completely different composition, it must be said that three of the participants have been denizens of Freedom House for so long that it would be quite shocking if they could surprise their comrades with anything they had not heard of so on. Even Mr Sam Hinds who was a member of the Civic component of government for more than twenty years, must be well acquainted with the drift of party thinking, though admit that his counterpart may be less familiar with any radical thoughts who may have been conceiving in her mind for the past five years.
The fact of the matter is that a meeting of this particular group that included only members of or affiliated with the same party did not require a ritual; all four of them could have hunted down in some comfortable armchairs and had an informal chat at any time. As it stands, however, these forums are to be set up and run quarterly. Given all the publicity, inevitably some curiosity was generated as to what emerged from the meeting. The Office of the President reported President Irfaan Ali as saying about it with little detail, although presumably all participants agreed that constitutional and electoral reforms should be people-driven.
Where the issue was specifically electoral reform, the statement said that ideas were discussed on how to strengthen the electoral system, get external support in our legislation (whatever that might mean), stronger sanctions and a clearer definition of the system election. If not entirely enlightening, earlier statements by Attorney General Anil Nandlall provided some context.
On December 7 we reported that the AG said the government had drafted a list of electoral reforms. If already done, what does the statement from the presidential forum mean that all participants agree that constitutional and electoral reforms should be human driven? If a draft already exists, and the ‘people’ have other suggestions that are not alongside the draft, would President Ali’s government then delay the wishes of the people?
One of the priorities, according to the AG, was to strengthen the ongoing registration process which could include making an external organization responsible for registration. He would then present the data he had collected to Gecom before elections. There would also be, he said, a legislative outline of how the ballots in ballot boxes would be checked, and tougher penalties for electoral offenses. In addition, offers of electoral support from various countries and agencies would be used.
He also referred to staffing, saying that hiring issues must be addressed “so that the system attracts people of integrity,” which must also “reflect … the country’s ethnic demographic”. In short, in his view “the legislation and other aspects of the election machinery will have to be scrutinized very carefully.”
It can be noted that employing staff on the basis of the country’s ethnic demographics is not the same as hiring people on the basis of their integrity. It speaks volumes about the government’s leading concern in circumstances where it is in pains to convince the population that inclusion is its real priority. One can only wonder whether Gecom’s ethnic quotas were intended to be written into the revised electoral legislation, which would not only set a precedent in this country, but invite a series of criticisms.
The AGs and by implication the President’s concerns are primarily concerned with mechanical matters, such as the one involving an outside agency that compiles the register of voters. This is a new idea that could potentially attract support outside government. Some of the other occupations are specifically linked to preventing repetition of what happened in the five months following the March 2nd election. Whether all these schemes, such as increasing the penalties for electoral criminality, are far more effective than what is already open is open to dispute.
Whatever the case, when civil society talks about electoral reform they have something far more fundamental in mind than the government or presidential forum has. Whether coincidental or not, the AG spoke the day after launching a new civil society group seeking substantial electoral reforms he would like to see in place before the next general elections. The so-called Electoral Reform Group plans to spend the next year reaching out to different communities to reach a consensus on what reforms are necessary.
Economist Desmond Thomas, a member of the steering committee, explained at the launch that the intention is “to foster and support the civil society dialogue process with the aim of drawing up an electoral reform proposal for legislation and implementing it by 2025.”
Other lead members stressed that a silver bullet for solving Guyana’s problems did not exist; however, it was a reminder that several countries had undergone electoral reform that provided significant examples of best practice that could be replicated. In a letter subsequently published in this newspaper, the group wrote that the ERG saw electoral reform as “the entry point leading to wider reforms.” They did not deny the pessimism expressed by many citizens about the political leadership receiving the necessary changes, and one was quoted as saying, “Political parties are committed to staying in power and historically they are not the engine of change best that might affect their own power. . ”
There is, of course, an additional problem in this case, and that is the PPP culture that has been attributed to its Marxist-Leninist approach. While the vast majority of its members no longer adhere to the ideology, the party has never leaked the methods associated with that ideology. That is, he has an obsession with management, and as the leading party needs to be a pioneer of innovations. He may talk about inclusivity, he may talk about human-driven reform, but that’s not how he operates, especially if the ‘people’ are outside his mind.
Although the ERG will seek to include all political parties in their dialogues, there is great doubt as to whether the PPP will cooperate with any initiative that originates beyond the perimeter of Freedom House. Most recently there was an example of President Ali’s refusal to attend the National Conversation on improving ethnic relations because the Ethnic Relations Commission had, therefore, held, “gone into hiding” in the five months following the election, and failed to consult his government in planning the event.
Considering, as we reported, that the commission, contrary to what it claimed, issued statements on two occasions, it appears to be due to a lack of government involvement in the planning arrangements, even though it was invite in person. Among other things he said that the ERC was not functioning properly, and that he had put at the center of the conversation “individuals involved in the process of dismantling democracy”. We’re certainly not going to go very far in terms of inclusion if he’s not going to talk to APNU + AFC sympathizers under any circumstances, though it must be asked if he wasn’t the one who invited Mr Granger to ‘ w presidential forum.
Although it makes sense to approach constitutional reform through the path of electoral reform, it must be remembered that it is also a highly technical issue that will also require the input of some knowledgeable individuals. President Ali’s ‘people’ and the ERG ‘grassroots’ can outline the principles they want to see incorporated, but most will not be able to supply the detail or structure. There also needs to be a conversation at a different level, which Dr Henry Jeffrey, for example, briefly introduced in his column on making MPs more accountable on August 12th this year.
In the end, electoral reform of any meaningful kind depends on persuading the politicians, especially whoever is in power. That is not an easy task, and will require a great deal of ongoing pressure from large sections of the community. It remains to be seen whether the ERG can be a catalyst for this.