The fa­mil­iar ring of the elec­tions sea­son

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

Lo­cal govern­ment elec­tions are to be held on Novem­ber 12th. With the polls, the never-end­ing stream of sus­pi­cions have emerged as the Govern­ment es­tab­lished new lo­cal govern­ment units and merged oth­ers. The Op­po­si­tion ar­gued that these were done to give an ad­van­tage to the Govern­ment and the Op­po­si­tion, through one of its rep­re­sen­ta­tives, promptly launched le­gal pro­ceed­ings. This event pro­vided the ex­pla­na­tion for the ‘dis­ap­pear­ance’ of the Chief Elec­tion Of­fi­cer, Mr. Keith Lowen­field, on one of the most crit­i­cal days of the elec­tions process, af­ter the sub­mis­sion of lists, when cor­rec­tions have to be made and de­fects rec­ti­fied.

Omi­nously, Re­turn­ing Of­fi­cers were ac­cused by the Op­po­si­tion of de­clin­ing or re­fus­ing to ex­er­cise their author­ity, or were un­aware that such author­ity ex­isted. Did it have to be on this par­tic­u­lar day that Mr. Lowen­field had to at­tend his lawyer’s cham­bers to sign an af­fi­davit, a process that takes no more than an hour, count­ing the trav­el­ling time from GE­COM’s High Street Of­fice to the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Cham­bers in Carmichael Street, a ten-minute drive away? Dis­ap­pear­ing acts of elec­tion of­fi­cials or be­ing in­com­mu­ni­cado at crit­i­cal mo­ments of the elec­tions process have a par­tic­u­larly sor­did his­tory. For the fu­ture, it is hoped that at im­por­tant junc­tures the Chief Elec­tion Of­fi­cer will be avail­able at all times, day and night, to his se­nior staff, Elec­tion Com­mis­sion­ers and the Chair­man. Re­turn­ing Of­fi­cers should be sim­i­larly avail­able to se­lected of­fi­cials of con­test­ing par­ties and be help­ful rather than ob­struc­tive. Their duty is to solve prob­lems, not to cre­ate them, and to ex­er­cise flex­i­bil­ity and dis­cre­tion in re­mov­ing ob­sta­cles to the smooth flow of the elec­tions process, with­out vi­o­lat­ing any law. This is what their train­ing should em­pha­sise.

At the press con­fer­ence last Fri­day, when Mr. Lowen­field gave his ex­pla­na­tion for be­ing in­com­mu­ni­cado, the Chair­man made some scathing re­marks on the is­sue of eth­nic­ity. He said: “It seems to be that our politi­cians have re­treated into ethno-po­lit­i­cal camps…. I per­son­ally have done all that is hu­manly pos­si­ble to weld the op­pos­ing fac­tions to­gether. It seems that things are get­ting worse.” The ba­sis of the com­plaint ap­pears to be that GE­COM “has de­lib­er­ately been putting more Afro Guyanese in po­si­tions than Indo Guyanese.” This was de­nied. But the Chair­man’s re­marks ap­pear di­rected to the PPP.

It is not the first time that the Chair­man has sought to ad­dress the is­sue of eth­nic im­bal­ance in the make-up of the per­ma­nent and tem­po­rary staff of GE­COM. The ba­sic rea­son given by the Chair­man, namely, that em­ploy­ment is based on com­pe­tence in ex­am­i­na­tion, leaves open the in­ter­pre­ta­tion that African Guyanese are more com­pe­tent than In­dian Guyanese. With due re­spect to the Chair­man, that is not so and is not the real rea­son. His­tor­i­cally, ap­pli­cants for po­si­tions on GE­COM have come pre­dom­i­nantly from the African Guyanese com­mu­nity. Dur­ing the 23 years that the PPP/C was on govern­ment, this sit­u­a­tion largely per­sisted although some suc­cess in re­bal­anc­ing was achieved, which has now been re­versed. There is an ar­gu­ment that GE­COM should con­sider ad­just­ments to its re­cruit­ment process to en­cour­age more In­dian Guyanese to ap­ply. No such thing ap­pears to be un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.

The Chair­man can­not be obliv­i­ous of the elec­toral his­tory of Guyana and who the im­me­di­ate vic­tims of that his­tory have been. The Chair­man also can­not be obliv­i­ous of the fact that as soon as the PNCR re­turned as the dom­i­nant com­po­nent in the Govern­ment, painful con­tro­ver­sies be­gan, in­clud­ing those sur­round­ing his own ap­point­ment as Chair­man. The Chair­man should there­fore not be sur­prised that a large dose of poi­son has been poured over the elec­toral sys­tem which has re­sulted in in­creased sus­pi­cion over the con­duct of elec­tions and the eth­nic com­po­si­tion of the elec­tions staff. Com­plain­ing about eth­nic im­bal­ance in the crit­i­cal area of elec­tions man­age­ment does not con­sist of re­treat­ing into ‘ethno-po­lit­i­cal camps.’ In our re­cent his­tory it was con­sid­ered to be in­fra dig to ob­ject to poli­cies on the ground of racism or eth­nic im­bal­ance. This is no longer the case. Eth­ni­cally-based or­gan­i­sa­tions and po­lit­i­cal par­ties now con­sider it their duty to com­plain about these is­sues.

The Chair­man ap­peared to be con­clud­ing that politi­cians re­treat­ing into ethno-po­lit­i­cal camps is a new phe­nom­e­non. And he ap­peared to be con­fin­ing his re­marks to one po­lit­i­cal party. But sadly, this re­treat man­i­fested it­self in the 1950s and can­not be al­le­vi­ated ex­cept by cre­at­ing the con­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ments which will fa­cil­i­tate col­lab­o­ra­tion by our two main po­lit­i­cal par­ties and re­duce the eth­nic fric­tion that Chair­man Pat­ter­son com­plained about. The APNU+AFC coali­tion promised to ad­dress the is­sue in its elec­tion man­i­festo and put for­ward se­ri­ous pro­pos­als such as sep­a­rate pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, the can­di­date win­ning the sec­ond largest num­ber of votes be­ing the prime min­is­ter and ev­ery party win­ning over 15 per­cent of the votes hav­ing a share in the govern­ment. But the Govern­ment has failed the Guyanese peo­ple by re­fus­ing to im­ple­ment its solemn un­der­tak­ing. And, so, our ethno-po­lit­i­cal dilemma per­sist and will con­tinue into the fu­ture un­til ad­dressed by the Govern­ment in the man­ner sug­gested.

All this is oc­cur­ring against the back­ground of ar­gu­ments on a le­gal chal­lenge to the Chair­man’s ap­point­ment hav­ing just been con­cluded in the Court of Ap­peal. These chal­lenges sug­gest that the con­tro­ver­sies will not end any­time soon.

This col­umn is re­pro­duced, with per­mis­sion, from Ralph Ramkar­ran’s blog, www.con­ver­sa­tion­

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