Since it became known that Dr. Steve Surujballi will be retiring shortly as Chairman of the Elections Commission, popularly known by the acronym, GECOM, there has been a flurry of activity in connection with the appointment of a new Chair. The Opposition has written to Minister Joe Harmon. The Leader of the Opposition announced that he would be engaging in wide consultations, which is a positive step since some of the bodies he mentioned have been critics of the PPP from time to time. Mr. Harmon indicated that the President has written the Leader of the Opposition and has triggering the process.
The process by which the Chair is appointed is provided for by the Constitution. In 1991 Dr. Cheddi Jagan, then Leader of the Opposition PPP, refused to accept the continuation in office of Chairman of GECOM, Sir Harry Bollers. President Carter persuaded President Hoyte to retire Chief Justice Bollers and asked Dr. Jagan for six names, which would be acceptable to President Hoyte, from whom he would choose one to be the new Chair. Among the persons searching for names were myself and Miles Fitzpatrick.
In those tense and frightening times, we were greeted with downright hostility by some of the persons we approached or their relatives. Others sent out messages that they were not at home. One of the persons who were not immediately paralysed by fear when Mr. Fitzpatrick asked him over the telephone was Ambassador Rudy Collins, who asked for time to consider. He eventually agreed and was appointed Chairman. The courage he displayed in allowing his name to go forward, later combined with ample diplomatic and management skills, was deployed throughout the elections period and set Guyana on a democratic path.
The informal request for six names by President Carter eventually became the constitutionally enshrined method by which the Chair of GECOM is chosen. Article 161(2) provides that the Chairman is to be appointed by the President from among a list of six persons, not unacceptable to the President, submitted by the Leader of the Opposition after meaningful consultation with the non-governmental political parties represented in the National Assembly.
The Constitution provides no objective basis for the President to determine whether a name submitted is unacceptable. There is therefore no guidance as to whether a President’s rejection of a list on the basis that the names are unacceptable can be challenged, if not based on objective criteria, or whether a rejection by the President of a list must be accompanied by reasons. This is an open issue and hopefully, during the constitution reform process will be resolved. But it was a relief to read that Minister Harmon indicated that if the list submitted by the Leader of the Opposition does not contain acceptable names, he will be asked to produce a second list. This accords with the view of many lawyers of the 1992 era. All lists of six submitted so far have had at least one person satisfactory to the President so there has been no need to go further.
A culture surrounding GECOM has grown up over the past 24 years. The Opposition which would have submitted the names to the President, and one assumes would have had confidence in all of them, quickly fall out with the Chairman. The Opposition PNC, then PNCR, has alleged that all elections since 1992, except the last one in 2015, which they won as APNU+AFC, were rigged. They have accused all the Chairmen of GECOM, including Dr. Steve Surujballi, except for the 2015 elections, of tolerating, or even engineering, malpractices during elections, with the possible exception of Major-General Joe Singh (ret’d), even though the elections over which he presided in 2001 were also legally challenged.
True to the culture, the PPP/C, which had no criticisms of the conduct of elections or of the Chairmen, including Dr. Surujballi, up to 2011, alleged that the elections of 2015, which they lost, were rigged and has since become bitterly hostile to Dr. Surujballi. We should expect that if names are submitted, one of which is accepted by the President, then the PPP will soon fall out with that person at latest after the next elections, if it loses. If it wins, no problem at all.
I have worked in Elections Commissions as a Commissioner under all the Chairmen, except Dr. Surujballi. All have been persons of integrity and have worked honestly and diligently. All elections that have been held since 1992 have been free and fair and have been so certified by accredited overseas and Guyanese observers. I have no doubt that once the systems that prevailed in the past are strictly adhered to, then future elections will also be free and fair. Concerns do remain, and these relate to activities on election day including violence or threats of violence to polling agents of Opposition parties and supporters, as in Sophia at the last elections. The expulsion of polling agents can easily give rise to the stuffing of ballot boxes. But these are early days and let us hope that systems are put in place to resolve all of these issues by the new Chair long before the next elections.