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Reform group calls for ‘simplifying’ of proposed elections law amendments.

This was published as a news article in the Stabroek News on 28th November, 2021.

With the six-week review period for the draft amendments to the Representation of the People Act (RoPA) winding down, the Electoral Reform Group (ERG) is calling on the government to simplify the proposals in order to reach the wider Guyanese population and extend the timeframe.

During an interview with the Sunday Stabroek, ERG’s Coordinator Lawrence Lachmansingh explained that the draft amendments, released by the government on November 5, requires “simplifying and demystifying.”

“We need education, absolutely, and that is something we [ERG] ourselves are committed to doing within our limited resources. But recognising that a lot of people are confused by what is RoPA and what this law means and so on and so forth, so we have to simplify and demystify them,” he related.

He added that the civil society group has been calling for the broadening of the electoral reform process, while noting that there is an opportunity for engagement at the grassroots level which can put forward solutions to a lot of Guyana’s electoral troubles. He explained that by harnessing the national capacity as a means of moving towards national consensus, then Guyana can end up with an electoral system that is representative of the people’s interests and not just those of the politicians.

“But when all of that is done, I think the basics are comprehensible readily by the people in terms of what is the problem that needs to be fixed and the more we talk to people I think the more we’re going to develop a national consensus,” he posited.

Lachmansingh urged the government to consider a little bit more generosity in terms of the spaces for regular citizens to join in, learn and participate in the decision-making process as an accompaniment to the electoral reform process. He further called for the government to not just look at electoral administration while ignoring the larger issues that affect the wider populace.

The government’s proposed amendments focuses heavily on addressing administrative issues that occurred during the March 2020 polls. Additionally, it introduced hefty fines and serious prison time for elections-related offences.

The ERG coordinator said that the Group is still sifting through the different proposals for the reforms using wisdom from those in the group who have participated in election administration and observation along with heeding the various recommendations made by observer missions.

“So we’re looking at the current proposed reforms from the perspective of what’s in there that’s good, and which was already identified… also what’s missing in terms of additional reforms that are needed,” he said.

Lachmansingh said that the amendment of the law is just one aspect of the reform process and it should not end there as it should address a number of very important challenges that Guyana has dealt with in the past, including the electoral system.

“When we vote and go to the polls and we elect somebody, how does that person actually end up representing us because that is fundamentally a function of elections? So a lot of that work hasn’t even started yet. So we’re looking forward to subsequent reforms. We can continue in ROPA and do what we have to do there. But we need to also put on the other aspects like political party campaign financing, political party regulation… we hope that there are downstream steps that will cover the other important aspects of electoral reforms,” he expressed.

Extension and consultation
Since the proposed amendments and their accompanying regulations are written in legal language, which ordinary Guyanese may have a problem deciphering, Lachmansingh is proposing engagements at the community-level.

“The second point that we’re [ERG] making, though, is that we really hope that this current process will actually be amended, extended, somehow adjusted, so that firstly, more people have a chance to participate. So we’ve already gone on record as saying that we think the current six-week process actually requires a bit more time for people to really consider the ins and outs of the proposed amendments so we have a chance as a country together,” he said.

The government has not held any consultations with the wider population since releasing the draft amendments. In fact, it was only after the amendments were released that the Guyana Elections Commission was invited to make submissions.

On that note, Lachmansingh called for the creation of spaces to discuss the proposed amendments instead of having a back and forth where the country ends up with changes that do not reflect the view of the wider population.

“We don’t think the solution to Guyana’s elections problems lies in the hands of technical experts like us. It lies in a process where people dialogue and discuss their differences and try to agree on a choice amongst the many good options. There’s no doubt about it, especially with technology now. The issue is not whether we lack technical correctness, the issue is how do we achieve a political consensus that will be a process correctness and so that point is something we really want to hold on to,” he said.

He added that they are hopeful that government considers and responds to the idea that a more inclusive and participatory process would be beneficial.

Doesn’t pass the smell test
Joining the call for an extension of the review process and a more inclusive methodology, ERG’s implementing member Dr Rory Fraser said that government took about six months to come up with the proposed amendments and therefore it cannot expect persons to examine it in just six weeks.

“They’re doing as they’ve done in the past, put their time and effort into something that they want to get done and then pass it under a nose and say smell this. See if it smells right. This one doesn’t pass the smell test because we didn’t have long enough to smell. We need time as they had to really get these things as a larger response. Because what we have in six weeks would be woefully inadequate to give a response for two major reasons: One, for all we have heard it has not gone far enough by a long measure, and second, there are some very, very significant things that are not currently in this current legislation that could have and should be addressed,” he contended.

“We don’t really have a representative government; what we have is a government that seems to be governed by the people in charge of major parties and those major parties are given that authority in a sense by our electoral system. Therefore, if we have a chance of making significant changes then we first have to address the electoral system,” he added.

The draft amendments are a result of the prolonged March 2020 general and regional elections process, which lasted exactly five months between balloting and the declaration of the final results amidst attempts to alter the legal outcome.

One of the major changes it proposes is the division of Region Four, the country’s largest electoral district, into four sub-districts – East Bank Demerara, East Coast Demerara, North Georgetown and South Georgetown – effectively adding a new section to Section 6 of RoPA, which deals with polling districts and divisions. Also proposed are hefty fines and lengthy jail sentences for elections officials who act unlawfully.

That amendments have, however, been criticised by the political opposition and civil society groups.