Re-engineering the Elections Commission

Stabroek News
September 3, 1999

Final discussions are now underway among political parties on the shape of the new Elections Commission. These deliberations are taking place within the parliamentary committee that was empanelled to study the report on constitutional reform submitted by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC).

Disappointingly, it seems that the political parties have slammed the door on a role for civil society on the Elections Commission. Despite the positive exchanges within the CRC on the helpfulness of civil society membership, the report stuck to the stale and divisive formula of strictly political representation with a chairman sanctioned by the main parties.

If nothing else, the trauma that the country has flailed in since December 1997 has demonstrated how utterly incapable the two main political parties and the other contestants on the scene are of righting the ship of state when it is thrown off course.

Were it not for external political intervention in the form of CARICOM's three `wisemen', the Herdmanston Accord would not have retracted Guyana from the brink of calamity. Were it not for CARICOM, the St Lucia Statement would not have fortified and rededicated efforts at achieving the Accord's goals. Were it not for CARICOM's dialogue facilitator, perhaps even the low level talks between the PPP/Civic and the PNC might not have been possible. Were it not for the Commonwealth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, perhaps the two parties would not have surmounted the hurdle of the remark about equals.

The accomplishments of civil society here since December 1997 have not been insubstantial. In the maelstrom that followed the elections in December 1997, it was the private sector that was implemental in soliciting CARICOM help. During that critical period, the private sector and other groups showed a commendable willingness to provide material and other support to get dialogue going between the two parties and also offered to play the role of broker at the talks.

Civil society also undertook a useful role in securing broader acceptance of tariffs schedules for the GEC privatisation deal. Prominent members of the community are engaged in refining the National Development Strategy which now has a much better chance of gaining acceptance by the mainstream parties.

More recently, during the 55-day public service strike, when the government and the public service unions were unable to deal with each other, it was the private sector that stepped in and eased the path towards an agreement.

The role that civil society groups played on the CRC should also not be underestimated.

President Bharrat Jagdeo comes to his 15-month term in office with new ideas on how things should be done. He has also signalled that modern methods of management will be pursued by his administration. It is a principle that should be applied with bravura not only in the running of ministries and state enterprises but in every nook and cranny that government or the governing party participates in.

The Elections Commission is one such undertaking. It will have the responsibility of presiding over what will be one of the most critical elections in the history of this country. Exclusively political representation is a certain recipe for intractable disputes and exacerbated tensions. The presence of civil society representatives on the commission will certainly not worsen this situation and could provide a useful outlet for steam generated by trenchant political skirmishing. It could also yield solutions to problems before they escalate into crises.

We urge President Jagdeo, the PPP and the PNC to reconsider their various positions on this issue and weigh carefully the likely benefits of civil society representation on the Commission. The old way of doing things has been discredited and it is not the only way.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples