Let an Independent Committee choose the top GECOM officers
In the wake of the controversial 2020 election, there were calls from several quarters for the reform of Guyana’s electoral machinery. These were not new calls , but the five-month impasse after polling day brought them into focus again. One of the main areas of contention was the partisan makeup of the commission or what is popularly called the Carter-Price formulae. The formulae allows the two major political parties to each appoint three members to the commission along with a chairperson who is chosen by the president from a list nominated by the opposition leader. This was part of a series of reforms agreed to by the parties in the run=up to the 1992 elections. It was meant to be a temporary measure, but there was never any serious move by the parties to arrive at a consensus replacement.
Indeed, while many of the regional and international observers have suggested that this political commission is at the heart of the dysfunctional electoral machinery, the major parties have not indicated any intention to replace it. This publication does not believe that the political parties are ready to turn control of the commission over to a so-called independent body. The obvious question is how this independent commission would be appointed and by whom. Our view is that in the final analysis such an undertaking would fall right back into the hands of the parties. In such circumstances, it would make little sense to try to tamper with the current formulae at this time.
It is against that background that we argue for a devolution of the powers of the commissioners as a first step towards the depoliticization of the electoral machinery. One such power of the commission is its major role in deciding who fill the top spots in the secretariat such as the Chief Elections Officer, the Deputy Chief Elections Officer and other senior officers. Currently the Commissioners decide on the short list of interviewees from the pool of applicants, conduct the interviews and decide on the suitable candidates.
In the past, this process was criticized for being too partisan as commissioners tended to vote for candidates who they view as less likely to be hostile to the interests of their respective parties. In our deeply divided political environment, ethnicity rears its head, leading to secretariats that did not enjoy the confidence of both sides. For this publication, that’s the root of the problem. It is no accident that the current government has swiftly moved to cleanse the secretariat which it believes attempted to rig the 2020 election in favor of the now opposition coalition. It has used its executive power to get the police to take over charges against these officers which were initiated by private partisan individuals. But, worse, the chairperson threw her support behind the PPP bloc of commissioners to remove these senior GECOM officials.
This publication therefore has no confidence that this combination would not also determine who the replacements should be. While we do not accuse the chairperson of partisan bias, her voting record in agreement with the PPP commissioners on crucial matters does feed the perception of bias. In our volatile political climate, perception quickly becomes reality. We, therefore, urge that an independent committee be put in charge of the process of interviewing candidates and determining who are most suitable persons to fill the vacancies.
Of course, the question of who determines the makeup of this committee arises. For now, we propose that the consensus formulae suggested by the CCJ in relation to the appointment of the GECOM chair be utilized. We urge that the president and the Leader of the Opposition sit down and come up with names which are suitable for the task. While this is not by any means a perfect solution, we feel it is better than a group of overtly partisan commissioners performing such a delicate task in a toxic political atmosphere. It would be a tragedy if we allow this moment to be just another exercise fraught with political danger. It is time to act.