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Guyana’s electoral system under “stranglehold” of a few

This was published as a news article in the Kaieteur News on 25th July, 2022.

Local economist and electoral reform advocate, Dr. Desmond Thomas, believes that Guyana can achieve its true potential on the basis of institutional changes led by electoral reform.

Speaking at lecture on electoral reform organized by civil society group Article 13, Dr. Thomas noted that even as society evolves and changes are implemented, the systems must equally undergo reforms.

“I believe there are institutional changes that this country needs and I believe that electoral reform is the place to start. The political literatures tell us if you have an unstable environment the place to start is usually electoral reform,” he said.

However, Dr. Thomas pointed out that in Guyana, the electoral system is under the “stranglehold,” of a few people.

The electoral reform advocate made specific reference to structural composition of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM). Dr. Thomas stressed that the structural makeup at GECOM makes it difficult for the electoral reform to be achieved.

“I was trying to think about the last time that GECOM did something positive, constructive and noteworthy for this country and I thought for a long time but couldn’t come up with anything. The fact of the matter is that GECOM is just there with two sides fighting each other,” explained Dr. Thomas.

According to Dr. Thomas, for the Elections Commission to overcome its issue, it must start operating on an independent and non-partisan basis.

Dr. Thomas asserted, “GECOM’s problems are rooted in the fact that it comprises of partisan political persons. There are some basic elements of any solid elections commission, it must be non-partisan. We can’t have an elections commission being run by people who are themselves involved in the elections. At GECOM, we have persons from the main political parties and then we have the chairman. That can never work.”

As part of his presentation, the economist referenced composition of elections commissions in India and Jamaica.

Dr. Thomas noted that “In places like India and Jamaica, there are efforts to make the commission independent and autonomous. Part of it is making sure that the elections commissioners are appointed in some kind of non-partisan way and also protecting them when they become members from political influence and one way to ensure this is by giving the persons fixed terms.”

He continued, “In Jamaica, there are nine people on the commission, four nominated by the parties, four nonpartisan and the CEO. And who elects the Chairman? The nine members; so we don’t have the problems we have here where we take a long drawn out process to elect the chairman.”

He stressed therefore, if Guyana is to achieve its true worth, a change in the electoral system is inevitable.

The electoral reform advocate noted that reform is something that is continuous because of the changing face of society and how things are done.

He said, “While the country is no doubt endowed with vast natural resources, if we don’t get our act together, we will not be able to benefit from our vast wealth and the ambitious goal to raise the living standard of the average person will not be achieved.”

“Development doesn’t depend on gold and silver and oil. It depends on people of vision and if we don’t get those things right, we are not going anywhere.”

Dr. Thomas’s view on changing the structural composition of GECOM is not isolated. Following the March, 2o20 election, the Organisation of American States (OAS) Electoral Observation Mission, in its menu of recommendations, called for the restructuring of GECOM.

The Constitution (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2000 paves the way for the appointment of six members of the commission – three appointed by the President and another three appointed by the opposition based on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. The Chairman of the Elections is appointed by the President from a list of six nominees proposed by the Leader of the Opposition. However, former Prime Minister of Jamaica and Head of the Mission Bruce Golding told journalists that the existing formula is a recipe for division.

“The mission observed the polarisation among the members of the Guyana Elections Commission and the challenges this created in arriving at consensus on most issues.

The divisions appear to exert undue pressure on the chairperson and the use of his or her casting vote to resolve decisions before the commission,” Golding explained.

This was the case in February 2019 when the then Chairman of the Elections Commission, Justice (Ret’d) James Patterson, had used his casting vote to support a motion for the conduct of house-to-house registration. Justice Patterson had come in for major criticism from the opposing side.

Cognizant of the prevailing challenges, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission had recommended that Guyana engages in a multi-stakeholder discussion on the structure of GECOM in an effort to enhance the “deliberative nature and decision-making process of the Commission.”