Elections Commission bill passed

By Wendella Davidson
Guyana Chronicle
April 11, 2000

THE way is clear for setting up a new Elections Commission with the passing yesterday of the Constitution Amendment Bill 2000 in the National Assembly.

The Bill, which sets the foundation for elections due by January 17 next year, was unanimously supported by all political parties in the House.

At its second reading, the legislation was piloted through its stages by Minister of Agriculture/Parliamentary Affairs, Mr Reepu Daman Persaud.

Some areas of reservation in relation to the Bill were noted by Leader of the Alliance for Guyana, (AFG), Dr Rupert Roopnaraine and Leader of The United Force (TUF), Mr Manzoor Nadir.

Minister Persaud in introducing the Bill said it repeals Articles 110, 161 and 184 of the 1980 Constitution and has the blessings of all parties in the National Assembly.

"The inclusive approach speaks well for our country and should be the pattern throughout the electoral process", he said.

"The electoral machinery must be free, fair, and impartial and we will do everything possible to ensure that happens," he pledged.

"Those who have been engaged and are still engaged in the constitutional reform process, have been working beyond the call of duty and have been patriotic in their approach," the minister said.

According to Persaud, the Bill provides mainly for the redesignation of the Minority Leader, who will now be known as `Leader of the Opposition' and for the so designated person to be elected by opposition members of the National Assembly, according to Article 110 of the Constitution Amendment Bill 2000.

The meeting to elect the Leader of the Opposition is to be presided over by the Speaker of the National Assembly.

There is provision in the Article too for the person elected Opposition Leader, if ever it becomes necessary, to be removed through voting by the show of hands.

The Bill also provides for the establishment of a permanent Elections Commission with a fulltime Chairman who must not be engaged in any other form of employment.

The President will appoint the Chairman from six names, which will not be unacceptable to him, to be submitted by the Leader of the Opposition after consultations with the other non-governmental parties in the National Assembly.

Six members along with the Chairman will compose the Elections Commission, three of whom will be appointed by the President and the remaining three to be recommended to the President by the Leader of the Opposition, following consultation with other members of the opposition.

For a meeting to be convened, there must be a quorum of five members, two each from the government and opposition along with the Chairman.

And, in the event there is no quorum, the meeting will stand adjourned for two days.

In relation to the declaration of an elections result, this will be done after the Chief Elections Officer presents his advice at a duly constituted meeting.

Persaud pointed out that the Bill is the first and significant step to put in place the most important component, the Elections Commission.

Member of Parliament of the main opposition People's National Congress (PNC), Mr Lance Carberry, announcing his party's support for the Bill, said it represents "one more vital step for the realisation of the Herdmanston timetable".

The governing People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic) and the PNC signed the Herdmanston Accord in January 1998 under the auspices of the Caribbean Community after rising tensions and violence from PNC anti-government street demonstrations in Georgetown.

The accord called for the holding of national elections, under a reformed constitution, no later than January 17, 2001.

Roopnaraine supported the legislation with reservations.

He said the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) had called for redrafting Articles 161 and 162 "to ensure that the role of political parties and their nominees, in the conduct of elections through the Elections Commission, should be limited to policy making and monitoring and should exclude active management of the process including the appointment of elections officials."

Roopnaraine argued that the issue has to do with the extent to which the Elections Commission will have responsibility for the appointment of all commission staff, including temporary staff for elections day.

The AFG representative said he had argued at the CRC and the Select Committee level that as long as there is a political Commission, as is at present, and it discharges the appointment of staff, there is the likelihood that it may run into difficulties.

It is better to have the people "doing the umpiring not to be the players themselves", he suggested, adding that the Elections Commission would have been in a position of greater neutrality to preside over this "highly contentious process" if the political parties were not refereeing the game.

Roopnaraine contended further that no success was gained in installing a permanent Elections Commission, but instead, the concept of permanence was transferred to the secretariat.

Nadir, though happy that the Bill was finally before the House, said he was disappointed they had failed to deal with the issue of the permanency of the Secretariat in the "particular" legislation.

According to him, "the legislation does not meet the recommendation of permanency in terms of the Secretariat," adding it means another Bill will have to be brought to the House speedily, otherwise the same process will have to be gone through for the next set of elections.

Nadir said that on every occasion it will cost the government about $5M, and it was time to start building an institution that can withstand the pressures and speed of the 21st Century.