From registration to poll results

Stabroek News
July 26, 1999

Whatever the outcome of the elections petition which is currently being heard in the High Court, it is crystal clear that the staging of the next general elections will demand the highest standards of accountability and transparency.

As we said in our editorial on July 15 it is important to establish what went wrong on December 15, 1997 and in the days thereafter and ensure that the next vote is shorn of these defects. That of course is easier said than done.

The protests that generated the Herdmanston Accord[ please note: link provided by LOSP web site] are seen in two spectacularly contrasting lights depending on which political camp one speaks to. The ruling party saw it as a thinly disguised attempt to scuttle a fair election and to deny the PPP/Civic another term in office. The PNC saw the election as comprehensively flawed and therefore incapable of providing an acceptable result.

Out of this ferment arose the Accord which aimed to mitigate not only the effects of the ill-starred election but to deal with more fundamentally decisive issues such as constitutional reform and political dialogue.

The inter-party dialogue has so far been a tremendous disappointment and it is left to be seen whether it can proceed parallel to the constitutional reform process which has gained enormous momentum. Dialogue is best known for the loggorhoea and tension associated with schoolboyish remarks about who was not another's equal.

Whether the fruits of the constitutional reform will live up to the expectations of those who signed onto the Accord with the hope that real reconciliation and inclusiveness would flourish is debatable. In the minds of many it has fallen short of the kind of change hoped for.

At this point it leaves many asking the same questions they posed in the heady days that followed the Herdmanston Accord of January, 1998. What is the fail-safe formula to prevent further unrest associated with elections results? What is to stop supposedly spurious allegations about the elections from being the kernel of violence and gamesmanship and creating fertile ground for a repeat of December 1997?

In short there is no guarantee. The politics-weary citizens who vote for progress, good governance and a bright future for the country will however expect as close to an iron-clad commitment as possible that general elections the next time around will not descend into the gut wrenching complications and violence of 1997.

How theoretically can this be achieved? By virtue of their public positions, both the PPP/Civic and the PNC would be hugely interested in independent verification of every phase of the elections process from registration to the declaration of results. One way of providing this is through the increased use of specialised observers in the entire process. In the campaign for free and fair elections prior to 1992, the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy had insisted that there be observers at each and every polling station. In the end that was not yielded to. As backwards a step as it is, the next election should surely warrant the increased use of observers for the pre-election day phases, on polling day and most importantly, the days that follow. It was in the days that followed December 15, 1997 that the cauldron of suspicion, rumour, confusion and delay boiled furiously and spluttered crisis after crisis. This time around observers must see it through to the final declaration and be able to assess where delays originate and why. There should be an enhanced role for local monitors (the EAB) and international organisations such as the Commonwealth, the OAS and IFES.

Secondly, the staffing of the elections administration from registration to results has revealed a gross deficiency in efficient and competent personnel (no surprise here, this is Guyana). Many of the breakdowns and improper procedures in 1997 can be attributed to this problem. The hiring of competent persons and their intensive training must command much greater emphasis in the running of the elections than in the past. It may require the placement of very experienced elections administrators in all phases of the exercise. A role could be sought for the United Nations in this aspect.

Thirdly, the permanent Elections Commission envisaged by the Constitutional Reform Commission must be put in place urgently to give it sufficient time to prepare. Hopefully, the composition of the commission will not be a problem and with civil society inclusion will engender greater confidence.

Ultimately, though, the success of the next general elections may yet rest on whether politicians are prepared to accept results on the basis of fairness as opposed to political expediency.

When we get the elections thing right maybe we can tackle beauty pageants. Maybe not!

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples