‘What happened last year must never happen again’
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Chief of the European Union’s Election Observer Mission, Urmas Paet
Chief of the European Union’s Election Observer Mission, Urmas Paet

— says EU observer mission; recommends creation of one, complete electoral law
–urges stakeholders to implement electoral reforms before next elections

AVOIDING a recurrence of the destabilising five-month impasse, which followed the March 2, 2020, General and Regional Elections, hinges on the expeditious implementation of sweeping electoral reforms, the European Union’s (EU) Election Observer Mission (EOM) has said.
Guyanese, after casting their votes on March 2, 2020, had to endure an unimaginable wait for the results of the General and Regional Elections, as they witnessed alleged unlawful acts and a slew of legal challenges. In this time, the patience of the electorate was tested, as electors observed what was described as attempts by the then incumbent A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Coalition to rip the democratic fabric of the nation, with “delay tactics” which were openly criticised by a wide section of society. It was only after the legal challenges and international intervention that a national recount of all votes cast was convened and the figures showed that the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) received 233,336 votes, while the APNU+AFC Coalition got 217,920 votes.

Though leaving Guyana on March 20, 2020, because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, prior to the climax and conclusion of the political impasse, the EU’s EOM, led by Chief Observer Urmas Paet, followed the series of events remotely and was able to determine that such occurrences could only be prevented by legislative and technical electoral reforms. “It is obvious that what happened last year should not happen again… I guess some changes at least in legislation concerning elections and then some of the technical practices should increase the possibility that it will not happen again,” Paet said during a press briefing at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre, on Friday. Some of the possible reforms and amendments, which Guyana could adopt, have been listed among the 26 recommendations outlined by the EU’s EOM in its final report on Guyana’s elections, which was issued on June 5, 2020.
Those very recommendations were in fact the reason for the mission’s return to Guyana, as Paet said that the plan is to engage election stakeholders and help to kick-start election reforms.

The mission has met already with the President of Guyana, Dr. Irfaan Ali; Vice-President, Bharrat Jagdeo; Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Harmon; Speaker of the House, Manzoor Nadir; Attorney-General, Anil Nandlall; Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Hugh Todd; and Chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), Justice (ret’d) Claudette Singh. Based on those discussions, the mission has determined that there is a “genuine interest” to consider their recommendations and broader electoral reforms. Of the 26 recommendations outlined by the EU’s EOM in its final report, there are eight priority areas which include the revision and consolidation of the fragmented election legislation; the launch of a consultation process to overhaul the composition and functioning of the elections commission; to develop effective legislation to regulate political financing; to foster transparency and accountability in online and offline campaigning; and to transform the state-owned media into a genuine public service broadcaster.

The mission also recommended that the country should adopt clear, written procedures for transmission and tabulation of election results; accompany any declaration of results with simultaneous publications of detailed polling station results and digital copies of all Statements of Poll; and establish a comprehensive election- dispute resolution. According to Paet, the response to those and other recommendations was positive, but this should have been implied, since stakeholders would have already been aware of the need for changes given the recent occurrences related to national elections.
“I do not think the political leadership is happy… I think they realised some changes are needed… we are optimistic that some recommendations will be considered,” the chief observer said.

COMPLETE ELECTORAL LAW
In his view, given how complicated it is for politicians and other stakeholders to understand each element in the legal environment, there should be one, complete electoral law which encompasses all the electoral procedures.
A defined electoral law would eliminate any ambiguity in the system and create the conditions for a smooth flow.
The government had said already that there are plans to amend parts of the Representation of the People Act (RoPA), which relate specifically to the process governing local elections. Vice-President Jagdeo was reported as saying that the government is looking at the RoPA and will soon be drafting amendments, which are intended to improve transparency in the methodology related to the counting of ballots. In essence, the amendments would remove any ambiguities which exist.
“For instance, the Statements of Poll (SoPs), when they are received, we want them published before the count starts, so even before it starts, the people can see the SoPs, calculate them and see who won,” the Vice-President said.

In preparing the amendments, the government will also be examining the penalties attached to electoral fraud.
Senior officials of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), including the Chief Elections Officer (CEO), Keith Lowenfield, and Returning Officer for Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica), Clairmont Mingo, are already before the courts for “misconduct in public office.”
As reported, those who have been charged with offences relating to electoral fraud and misconduct in public office are: Chairperson of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), Volda Lawrence; opposition activist, Carol Joseph; Deputy Chief Elections Officer (DCEO), Roxanne Myers; the CEO’s clerks, Michelle Miller and Denise Bob-Cummings; Elections Officer, Shefern February and Information Technology Officer, Enrique Livan.
They are all accused of inflating the results for Region Four – Guyana’s largest voting district – to give the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Coalition a majority win at the March 2 polls, when in fact, the PPP/C had won by 15,000 more votes.

Deputy Chief of the EU’s EOM, Alexander Matus, reiterated the mission’s conclusion that the initial tabulation of the Region Four results was not transparent and in accordance with existing laws. While the observer mission has recommended ways to prevent a recurrence of this and other issues, Paet said it is up to the government and people of Guyana to decide what reforms will be implemented. He believes, however, that for electoral reform to be effective, it must be implemented before the next elections are called. “Now is the time for decisions and actions. For election reform to be effective, its implementation needs to begin well before the next elections are called. Inclusive and transparent reform processes help build confidence in elections and their results,” Paet advised. The EU’s EOM, he said, stands ready to assist Guyana with the implementation of any of the recommended measures. The assistance which Guyana could leverage and other critical topics will be discussed further when the mission convenes a multi-stakeholder meeting on Monday, March 22, 2021. Paet said invitations for this upcoming meeting have been dispatched to the Office of the President, the National Assembly, political parties, constitutional agencies, members of civil society and other key stakeholders.

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