Carter Center assesses status of Guyana’s electoral preparations

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In a detailed press release, the Carter Center has commented on the country’s electoral preparations and has made recommendations for wide distribution of tabulation procedures.

See full statement:

Introduction

The Carter Center first became involved in Guyana in the early 1990s at the invitation of President Desmond Hoyte and since then has been dedicated to the advancement of democracy in the country. These elections will be the fifth that The Carter Center has observed in Guyana since 1992, reflecting an ongoing commitment to the consolidation of democracy and a desire for Guyanese to live together in peace, security, and prosperity.

Following a letter of invitation from the government of Guyana, the Center formally launched its international electoral observation mission in early January. The mission draws upon the Carter Center’s past engagement in Guyana, including assessments of previous elections as well as exploratory visits in 2019 to assess the political environment and status of preparations for this election. The Center’s observation mission will provide an independent and impartial assessment of the electoral process and will issue periodic statements and reports to the Guyanese people and the international community.

The 2020 election takes place during a time of great change in Guyana, when many are hoping for an economic windfall from the discovery of oil. The main political parties and leaders have a responsibility to collaborate across the National Assembly as well as the broader political spectrum to ensure transparent management of this resource and the wealth promised for the nation so that the Guyanese people reap the just rewards of this precious asset.

The Carter Center Presence. The Center deployed a team of four electoral experts (the core team) in early January. Six long-term observers (LTOs) arrived in Georgetown in mid-January and were briefed before deploying to the various regions of the country. The LTOs, in teams of two, have visited, and continue to visit, all of Guyana’s 10 regions. Both the core team and the LTOs are observing electoral preparations, following the electoral campaign, and engaging with stakeholders – including electoral authorities, government officials, political parties, civil society, and the media, among others.

Shortly before polling day, Aminata Touré, former prime minister of Senegal, and Jason Carter, chairperson of The Carter Center Board of Trustees, will join the mission to serve as co-leaders of the observation delegation. They will be accompanied by Center staff from Atlanta and additional short-term observers, who will observe polling, counting, tabulation, and the announcement of results. The Center will remain in Guyana in the weeks after polling to observe the resolution of any electoral disputes.

Electoral Preparations

So far, The Carter Center notes that electoral preparations are on track and adhering to the established timetable, both in Georgetown and in the regions.

Ballot papers were printed under the supervision of two members of the Guyana Election Commission (GECOM) and arrived ahead of schedule, on Feb. 7. Arrangements for identification of appropriate polling stations have been finalized. For this election there will be 2,352 polling stations, a slight increase from 2015.

The Voter List. The registration of voters is an important way to ensure the rights of universal and equal suffrage and is essential to guarantee credible elections. The development of the official list of electors is a sensitive matter in all elections. This has been particularly true in Guyana. For the 2020 election, the process has been more complex than in the past, as GECOM has had to deal with two different sets of registration data: one from the existing National Register of Registrants (NRR) and the other from a truncated house-to-house registration exercise conducted by the commission in 2019. While The Carter Center has not reviewed all changes made to the voter register, it is satisfied that preparations have been made in a professional manner within the existing legal provisions. The Center hopes that all the work undertaken will ensure the utmost accuracy in the list to ensure a smooth polling day.

Candidate Nomination. In Guyana, Nomination Day is one of the most significant moments leading up to the election, as it constitutes the first step for the political parties to secure a spot on the ballot paper. The Carter Center was present at the nomination ceremony, where the mood was festive and peaceful. The nomination process went ahead without any glitches. Although some new parties raised concerns about the order in which parties were received by GECOM, all parties were given an opportunity to correct defects in their lists and were able to do so in the time allotted. GECOM eventually approved lists from 11 of the 13 political parties that applied for a place on the ballot. As a result, the 2020 election will have the largest number of contesting parties in Guyana’s history.

Following the nomination of candidates, some GECOM commissioners raised allegations that three candidates were dual citizens and should be removed from the candidate list. These three candidates were asked to provide just cause as to why they should not be removed from the list. The Carter Center is pleased that the matter was resolved equitably, although it has taken note of complaints that this affected the ability of the candidates in question to campaign on a level playing field.

The Campaign Period. The freedoms of opinion and expression, of association and assembly, are essential elements of political participation rights. These rights are protected when candidates and supporters are free to campaign without hindrance.[1] All contesting political parties are in the midst of their electoral campaigns. The Carter Center LTOs in the regions have observed 23 campaign rallies and events and reported no major incidents during this important and sensitive period. Campaigning has largely proceeded peacefully, although observers have heard allegations of isolated incidents of harassment of supporters of both the ruling coalition and the opposition, as well as of destruction of campaign posters. So far, Carter Center observers report strong participation by women and youth.

The Carter Center notes with concern an elevation of rhetoric on the campaign trail, including the use of language that some allege is inflammatory. The Center encourages political parties and candidates to refrain from the use of provocative speech to help guarantee a peaceful polling process. The introduction of a code of conduct by the Ethnic Relations Commission was a welcome initiative, one that drew on the existing legal obligations of parties to comply with the Representation of the People Act and the Racial Hostility Act. The code calls on all parties to refrain from using any words or engaging in actions that might stoke tension or be offensive. It is commendable that all 11 of the parties competing in the election publicly committed to abide by the code of conduct at a signing ceremony on Feb. 13.

Advanced Polling. Preparations are underway for early voting by disciplined forces and diplomats and their families. This will take place on Feb. 21 at special precincts or ballot stations. These provisions are meant to allow members of the disciplined forces and the Guyanese diplomatic community to exercise their right to vote without affecting their duties and responsibilities. Carter Center observers will be present to observe early voting in some locations.

Tabulation. The tabulation of results is an integral phase of the electoral process that ensures that the will of the voters is accurately and comprehensively reflected in the final results.[2]

The Carter Center has been discussing the tabulation procedures with GECOM’s secretariat and feels that the procedures in place appear to follow the legal provisions. However, the Center is concerned that the procedures have not been made clear to key stakeholders. Clear and detailed explanations of procedures – with key safeguards for transparency, including explicit provisions allowing for party scrutineers and observers at all stages – are critical. The Center encourages GECOM to publicize and distribute existing procedures as widely as possible, including to all political parties, civil society organizations, media, and electoral observers, in order to clarify any misunderstandings and avoid disputes over the process.

Conclusion

In the years since the first discovery of oil in the Stabroek block in 2015, more oil has been discovered in Guyana’s offshore waters than anywhere else in the world. The Carter Center has seen the negative influence of extractive industries in many countries with social and ethnic cleavages, and believes that these negative effects can be mitigated if democratic institutions are strong and inclusive. The Center hopes that Guyana can set a global example of inclusive democratic governance, renewed commitments to fighting corruption, and efforts to ensure that all citizens benefit from what promises to be a bright future.

Over the course of the Carter Center’s engagement in Guyana over the decades, the Center has taken note of repeated commitments by political parties in their manifestos to enact constitutional reform, as well as urgent calls from civil society for the same. The Center has also encouraged reform of the “winner-take-all” election system currently in use. The Center strongly encourages political leaders, parties, and civil society to debate issues around constitutional reform and more inclusive governance during the campaign. In addition, the Center urges the parties to commit to quickly taking up this critical issue in the post-election period, and to completing constitutional reform in a time-bound period well before the next general elections.

As Guyana prepares for the March 2 election, The Carter Center encourages all eligible voters to exercise their right to vote and to contribute to the consolidation of sustainable democratic institutions. The Center calls on all political leaders to work together to ensure full respect for the electoral process, in which all eligible voters – no matter their ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or other facet of their identity – are able to express their preference for the country’s future. The Center encourages all parties to act in a responsible manner during and after the announcement of the results. It is the Center’s hope that the upcoming election will be peaceful, inclusive, and credible.

About the Mission

The Carter Center conducts its election observation missions in accordance with the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers that was adopted at the United Nations in 2005 and has been endorsed by more than 50 election observation groups. The mission assesses the electoral process based on Guyana’s national legislation and its obligations for democratic elections under both regional and international agreements.