PIPER: The GECOM Standoff

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It all began rather innocuously at the beginning of December when the incumbent Chair of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) announced his retirement. In any other country, his replacement would have been another routine bureaucratic appointment, but with our history of rigged elections between 1968-1985 and fervent claims and counterclaims of “flaws” in subsequent elections, it is anything but.

Because of the history, the Chairman becomes the deciding vote on an evenly balanced Commission between Government and Opposition. But even more germanely, because he is the only full time Commissioner, he can keep an eye on the staff – especially in the upper reaches – who are charged with maintaining the integrity of the critical counting process.

Former GECOM Chairman, Dr. Steve Surujbally

Following the process initiated in 1991 by US President Jimmy Carter, which was subsequently incorporated into the constitution as Art 162 (2), Opposition leader Bharat Jagdeo, consulted Civil Society and submitted six names to President Granger to select one who was not “unacceptable” to him. The procedure was obviously designed to create consensus on the person of the GECOM Chair.

Up to this point, on at least five occasions, the GECOM Chair had always been extracted from the submitted list of the incumbent Opposition leader, starting with PNC Leader Desmond Hoyte. He, as a matter of fact, had included the name of now President Granger on his 2001 list. The process had become “regularised” in the minds of the populace, but President Granger decided that all the previous presidents – including Mr Hoyte – had misinterpreted Art 162 (2) and rejected Jagdeo’s list in toto.

 The criteria for selection from the Art seemed clear: “… the chairman of the Elections Commission shall be a person who holds or who has held office as a judge of court, having unlimited jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters in some part of the Commonwealth or a court having jurisdiction in appeals from any such court or who is qualified to be appointed as any such judge, or any other fit and proper reason.”

 The Opposition Leader asked for clarification on the reason for rejecting his list, presumably so that he could have been guided in submitting a new one, as President Granger demanded. After a number of other objections, President Granger has now settled that in his interpretation of the above Article, the GECOM Chairman must be, or have been, a judge, since these are individuals who demonstrate “impartiality, intelligence and integrity”. But rather than meeting the Opposition Leader, as the latter requested, to overcome the impasse, President Granger has asked that his Attorney General and a legal agent of the Opposition leader resolve the matter. The latter, however, has already said the issue ought to be sent to the Caribbean Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.

In accepting that he is going against more than two decades of tradition, in a country that is barely fifty years old, and in rejecting a “political jawboning” with the opposition leader, President Granger seems to be precipitating a confrontation over an issue that was thought to have been settled.

Up to now, not a single one of the GECOM Chairmen have been a judge or qualified to be one. Obviously, since they successfully oversaw the conduct of five elections, some of which were quite challenging and challenged, it would appear that the President Granger’s insistence on having a judge may be “the occasion for the war and not the cause.”

It behoves him to either sit down with the Opposition leader to address “the cause” or have the CCJ make the call.

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