REFORMING GECOM IS EASIER SAID THAN DONE!
There have been incessant calls over time for the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to be granted greater ‘independence.
It was argued that this independence was particularly urgent in respect to two areas: financial control and political influence in the appointment of Commissioners.
It was contended that because the government holds the purse strings of GECOM it can use this to exercise control over the body. It was further argued that the Commission itself was too ‘political’ in that the political parties made the nominations of Commissioners.
Observer missions have more or less made the same arguments. Following the last elections, there was a call for the reform of GECOM and specifically for a more “professionally-based” Commission and less political appointees.
The constitution of the Guyana Elections Commission is based on what is known as the Carter formula. Under this formula, the ruling party nominates three Commissioners and the Leader of the Opposition does the same after consulting with the other parliamentary opposition parties. The Chairperson is chosen from a list of persons chosen by the Leader of the Opposition, and not objected to by the President.
The Carter formula still exists and is likely to be maintained well into the next election. While the observer missions have been calling for “independent” commissioners, in Guyana this is an almost extinct species.
The call for independent commissioners also shows how out of depth are the observers when it comes to the politics of Guyana. They do not understand the pressures that are likely to weigh on persons from outside of the political parties who may, in under a new arrangement, be selected as Commissioners. They do not appreciate the level of suspicion that greets such ‘independent’ appointments.
They are not attuned to the polarization that exists within our society. So divided is Guyana’s society- not just politics- that even ‘independents’ cannot be trusted to not play their own politics. The country is so divided that even the well-intentioned fall victim to suspicions once they take a side in a matter.
If for example someone were to suggest that one of GECOM’s commissioners be drawn from the private sector, there are parties in Guyana who will be opposed to this because they will feel that the person will favour one or the other of the parties, depending on who that person is. Civil society is polarized to the point that neutrality is widely and seriously questioned.
As such, despite its shortcomings, the Carter formula remains the only workable model. But it can be tweaked. For example, there can be an amendment to allow for the small parliamentary parties to be guaranteed one of the seats on the Commission.
Under the present arrangement, where all that is needed is consultation, and not even meaningful consultation, the main opposition party can dominate the process of picking the opposition party’s nominations, with the result that the Commission becomes totally polarized between the ruling party and the main opposition.
The opposition parties have however signaled that they would like to see reforms in GECOM. The best place to begin is with the composition of the Commission. It is anyone’s guess, or perhaps you already know the answer, as to what position the main opposition party will take as regards allowing the smaller parties a nominee.
The second area where reform has been suggested concerns the financing of GECOM. The criticism has long been made that because the government controls the purse strings of the Commission, they can use this to influence the work of the body. Thus, there have been calls for a mechanism to reduce the control that the government could exercise.
When the AFC recently announced that it would support cuts to the budget of GECOM it said it was doing so in order to prevent the government rushing towards snap elections. In other words the AFC was indicating that it would use its political leverage in parliament to block GECOM from being able to have snap elections.
Now which is worse? An opposition that can cripple the capacity of the Guyana Elections Commission from operating or a government which can decide how much money GECOM can get? The AFC’s use of the axe to manipulate when elections can be held is definitely more harmful.
It also reveals the contradictory nature of the opposition parties. On the one hand, there are calls for greater independence for GECOM from financial control by the government. On the other hand, we have financial control being exercised by the opposition parties to the extent that even funds set aside for refreshments were cut.
Any elections commission should be in a situation whereby it should freely be able to run- off elections whenever necessary and at very short notice.
Given that the opposition can move a motion of no-confidence in the government in parliament and given that once this is done it triggers certain constitutionally- specified responses, then the discretionary prerogative of the president to call elections at any time should never be curtailed, legally or administratively.
Yet this is precisely what the AFC was boasting about when it said that it would slash the commitments to GECOM so that snap elections cannot be held.
Not only does the opposition want to control, parliament, but it seems as if it also wishes to dictate when elections can be held. So much for democracy!