Guyana: Proposed Amendments to Elections Law Totally Inadequate – By Ralph Ramkarran

By Ralph Ramkarran – Conversation Tree Blog – November 13, 2021

The amendments to the elections’ laws proposed by the Government through the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill are woefully inadequate. They are limited to the following: imposing higher penalties for elections’ offences; creating new elections’ offences with high penalties; adumbrating a new structure for District (Region) 4; and establishing new offices for District 4. Having now demonstrated a mindset of where it wants to go by the contents of the Bill, the Government is unlikely to divert from this already decided course, except perhaps with minor amendments.

But much more is required, and this was the opportunity to accomplish needed reforms in other areas of the electoral system, especially since the next elections are four years away. I have written extensively, but vainly, about elections’ reform over several years. I now take the opportunity to repeat some of those ideas.             

For the 2001 elections the Government and Opposition agreed to establish a mixed electoral system of proportional representation and first past the post based on the recommendations of the Constitution Reform Commission. Elections were a few months away and agreement on the number of constituencies and their boundaries would have entailed extensive discussions. The Government and Opposition, as a temporary measure, agreed to create ten constituencies in accordance with the boundaries of the ten Regions. Twenty-five MPs were allocated to these new electoral districts, the number for each depending on the population of the Region. The clear intention was that this issue would be revisited after the elections. This never happened and the reform did not have the desired effect. No MP is identified with any particular constituency. No constituency offices have been established for the public to meet their MPs to address their issues and grievances. With elections four years away, now would be an opportune time to discuss the establishment of a genuinely mixed system with 30-40 constituencies and a national top up list of 25-35.

Over many electoral cycles, elections’ observers have recommended that GECOM be restructured in such a way that its members are independent and not representative of political parties. This proposal took centre stage after the recent elections. The counter argument is that few ‘independent’ persons can be found in Guyana. But the other, unspoken, reason is that the main political parties are unwilling to loosen their grip on the electoral process. They feel safe and secure by the control that they exercise, which they expect will prevent rigging by the other side. This is not a foolproof system to avoid rigging, as we all saw during last year. Neither are high penalties. The criminal offences of murder and rape attract severe penalties, but these offences are still prevalent. Direct political influence over electoral bodies do not exist in the Caribbean and most of the Commonwealth. The time is now available for the extensive consultations that this constitutional reform would require. But the publication of the Bill without comment by the Government indicates that Government does not intend to accept the recommendations of observers, or even respond to them.

No constitutional office in Guyana enjoys lifetime tenure. Even judges have fixed retirement dates by law. Members of the Public Service Commission and the Judicial Service Commission are appointed for specific periods. But Members of GECOM are appointed without limitation as to time. Their appointments cannot be terminated except by a complicated constitutional process. Under the 1980 Constitution, article 161 provided for the tenure of Commissioners to end three months after elections. The amendment to article 161 in 2000 to provide for the Carter-Price formula by which both the Government and Opposition will have three members each and an independent Chair (on paper at least), did not provide for a terms of office. This contradicts article 161(3)(b) of the Constitution which requires the Leader of the Opposition to consult with non-governmental parties represented in the National Assembly on its nominations of members of GECOM. The lifetime tenure of Commissioners now deprives Mr. Lenox Shuman, representing neither the Government nor Opposition, from exercising his constitutional right of having a say in the Opposition’s nomination of Commissioners.

In 2000 GECOM was given responsibility for registration under the National Registration Act. However, the National Registration Act and the Representation of the People Act were never integrated. Many anomalies exist, one of the main ones being the contradiction between the residency requirement for national registration and the qualification to vote based on citizenship. A citizen of Guyana, wherever he or she may reside, is entitled to vote. It stands to reason that he or she should be entitled to register and vote wherever he or she may reside. This means that he or she is entitled to register under the National Registration Act because the electoral register is usually extracted from the national register compiled under the National Registration Act. But the National Registration Act prohibits registration of such a person unless he or she is in Guyana and provides an address.

There are other important issues, but these are the main ones that have not been addressed. I will send this article with a covering letter to the Attorney General as my contribution to the consultation process. Short shrift is anticipated.

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