A challenging task Editorial
Stabroek News
November 3, 2001

Dr Steve Surujbally and Major General (retired) Joe Singh before him took on the job of Chairman of the Elections Commission. It is a tribute to our country that such persons can still be found as experience has shown that it is a thankless job in which however hard one works and however unbiased one seeks to be criticism, often unfair, is inevitable, including from those with their own agenda who are determined to find fault.

There is much to be done but as the Chairman said in the first statutory meeting with his commissioners they have been given "relatively adequate time" to create the conditions necessary for the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections. The first thing to be dealt with is the question of the voters list. This has remained a problem since the return to fair elections in l992, prior to which the list had been in a dreadful state. It seems most unlikely that the Commission will undertake a new voter registration. One imagines that for the local government elections to be held next year and for the next general elections they will work off the existing list, seek to correct any mistakes and update it for new voters. Many are satisfied that the list used for the last elections was acceptably accurate, despite the last minute problems with addresses, mainly due apparently to errors in data entry in the information technology department. Of course everyone who has thought about it accepts that we must aim for a list that is constantly and automatically updated from records of births and deaths and emigration so that lists are in a constant state of readiness as is the case in many countries. This is obviously necessary given the fact that local government elections should be held every two years.

It is imperative that all doubts be removed about the functioning of the information technology department. It is still not entirely clear what led to the problems last time, especially given the fact that there was a broad based oversight committee in place which included independent experts and personnel selected by the opposition monitoring its work on a regular basis. There was a strong suspicion that some of the 'mistakes' made in assigning wrong addresses were deliberate.

Regrettably, the Swedish based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance which carried out an inspection after the elections did not come to a conclusion on this issue as they said in their report that information was not available on the skill levels of those operators who had had a high rate of errors. Did they ask for such information and was it refused or was it not available at all? Weren't these operators tested before being recruited and wouldn't their test cards be on file? If so and if it was the case that those l7 operators who had an average error rate of more than 3% (three of them as high as 7%) had a high skill level and could therefore be presumed to have acted deliberately they should at least have been blacklisted and should not be re-employed in future.

It will also be important when the time comes to make every effort to employ competent and trustworthy staff in other areas.

The population as a whole looks forward to elections about as much as most people do to bypass surgery. However, local government elections are long overdue and are usually much less traumatic than national elections. There is the nagging feeling that however well the job is done there could still be difficulties. Earlier this year, despite the fact that a senior opposition commissioner like Mr Haslyn Parris effectively gave the results of the national elections his imprimatur there were those still not prepared to accept them.

Nevertheless, Dr Surujbally and his team have an important job to do and if they get the local government elections right this will be a great fillip to the national elections due in 2006. They must build on the efforts of their predecessors and do all they can to overcome the various pitfalls and avoid some of the computer and other errors that occurred last time. Dr Surujbally asked the Commissioners to pledge, which they did, to uphold the sanctity, impartiality and independence of the Commission. Let us hope they will work together as a united team, as seemed largely to be the case in the previous elections, under his committed leadership.