Election reflections

Stabroek News
March 31, 2001

One is still too close to the recent elections to be able to give a proper overview but a few preliminary impressions can be offered.

First, the new parliament should amend the Representation of the People Act to impose realistic limits on campaign spending and to require accounts to be filed after the elections, with serious penalties for not doing so. There was too much advertising on television and radio and the frequency became almost abusive and certainly counterproductive. The old provision should also be restored banning entertainment at campaign meetings - music, singers and so on. This can turn them into pappyshows.

Party lists should be required by law to show candidates in order of priority and there should be a mandatory percentage of women candidates in the top six or nine names.

Media campaigning on voting day must be strictly prohibited, as it used to be. And a political code of conduct should be agreed well in advance and made statutory, perhaps as a schedule to the Representation of the People Act. That Act should be thoroughly reviewed and updated.

Laws should not be passed that are almost immediately a dead letter. No effort was ever made to enforce the law passed unanimously in Parliament that made racially inflammatory statements a crime and provided stiff penalties. It was breached repeatedly on numerous television shows.

And then there was the dread list of voters which dominated pre and post election debate. This ghost has to be laid once and for all. Clearly what is required is a census followed by the compilation of a proper list to be regularly updated with births and deaths, as is done elsewhere.

What went wrong this time? The extraordinary textual and other errors on the final voters list are disturbing. How did they happen? Did one or more persons in the system deliberately do this to create confusion? Who were they and what was their motivation? Some very high profile voters were affected too. Every effort must be made to trace the source(s) of these errors in a computer audit as it is difficult to conceptualise how addresses got changed and persons got put in the wrong divisions or even struck off the list except by malicious intervention.

Despite this, voter turnout remained exceptionally high, particularly in Region 4 as a letter writer confirms in this issue. In most democracies the level of turnout achieved here would be considered extraordinary.

Then there was the sudden production of late results for some polling stations in Charlestown. How can this possibly be explained or justified by the officers directly involved? It seems at the very least astonishingly incompetent. Doesn't it ring a bell, haven't we seen something like this before?

And can an election result really be challenged in a court in this manner before the president is sworn in or shouldn't the election petition the only prescribed remedy? If there is indeed any legal doubt about this the law should be amended to make the position quite clear as otherwise we face the charming prospect of every election being routinely followed by legal proceedings and the setting up of the government being indefinitely delayed.

Dr Ralph Gonsalves was sworn in in St Vincent the day after winning, which is the norm.

Can we hold a really good election if we have a clean list? Are we capable of it, is the general level of competence too low or is the problem more one of decision or distrust or planted destabilisers in the system? One hopes that with the benefit of an audit the Chief Election Officer will deal with many of these matters fully in his final report. Many, many people experienced a thoroughly efficient and pleasant voting process on polling day. At the end of polling there were regrettable and flagrant abuses in a few stations, partly due to not closing on time (see a letter by Mr Gilbert in this issue). Can that kind of thing be stopped?

Since l968, elections in Guyana have been traumatic. Though since l992 they have not been rigged, we have never really got on even keel, partly due to inherited problems. The recent elections were also held within a timeframe that many considered unrealistic. Preparations, particularly with the list, must start much earlier.

Finally, the composition of the Elections Commission should be changed. The commissioners seem to have worked well together on this occasion and they unanimously supported the final results. But the commission should be depoliticized and run by specialists. The Carter formula has served its purpose. Running elections efficiently requires a lot of experience and a lot of preparation. In Guyana, it may require divine intervention.