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No GECOM Chairman “curtailing” Commission’s work- Chief Elections Officer; Ramotar says Granger probably delaying general elections for oil cash campaigning

Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield and former GECOM Chairman, Dr. Steve Surujbally.

The Chief Elections Officer of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), Keith Lowenfield says the absence of a Chairman is affecting key decision-making by that elections management agency.

“The absence of a Chairperson, no doubt, curtails the work of the Commission one way or the other,” Lowenfield told Demerara Waves Online News.

The delay has also raised concerns by former President Donald Ramotar that President David Granger has embarked on a plan to delay the next general elections to dole out goodies from oil revenues that are expected to flow in 2020- the same year that general and regional elections are due.

“They want to wait until they start to get oil flowing and, therefore, they will try to do a lot of splurging if they get oil money and use that as their excuse of what they did here and there to give them the kind of results that they would be looking for,” Ramotar told Demerara Waves Online News.

Charging that the two-year old Granger-led administration’s track record has been poor in the areas of good governance and transparency, Ramotar said the government was eagerly finding an excuse to delay the next general elections. “The longer they take to put a Chairman in place, the longer the preparations for elections will be delayed,” he added. The former Guyanese leader and veteran politician recalled that back in 1990 the voters’ list had been deliberately bungled, causing the then People’s National Congress (PNC) government under President Desmond Hoyte to postpone the elections to 1992 by which time the Carter Centre-brokered electoral reforms had been also put in place. Those reforms had included a new voters list and the counting of the votes at the place of poll, and abolition of overseas voting.

Since the retirement of Dr. Steve Surujbally from the post of Chairman in late February, 2017, the commission has not met, and his successor has been mired in a disagreement between President David Granger and Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo over the acceptability of the latter’s 12 nominees so far. The two political leaders are due to meet on Jun 12, four days ahead of another High Court hearing on a case to offer a legal interpretation of Guyana’s constitution on the eligibility of nominees.

Lowenfield explained that any additional activity such a fresh house-to-house registration would have to be dealt with whenever the seven-member body meets. “No doubt that will be on the agenda when the new Commission is properly constituted and you will move ahead with that, all depends on the priority of the Commission,” he said.

The GECOM CEO said after the commission decides whether to hold a new house-to-house registration exercise in 2018 or 2019, it would have to be factored into budget preparations. “In the absence of that, I cannot arbitrarily say that we are doing that because that decision is a decision of the board,” he said. GECOM had last year signaled that it would have been probably been held this year, as that process has to be held every eight years; the last one having been conducted in 2008.

The Chief Elections Officer said in the absence of a sitting Commission, GECOM was currently in the final stages of another round of continuous registration, as authorised by the Commission, issuing replacement national identification cards, and conducting internal training.

“New initiatives- I cannot do that because those are decisions of the board… so for us, the earlier the board is there, the composition is in order, I think GECOM can proceed in those many things that it wants because the direction will be provided to the Secretariat by the Commission,” he said.

The GECOM Chief Elections Officer said even though Local Government Elections are due again next year, the Commissioners “would have to pronounce on that” and supervise the operationalisation of its decisions.

Asked whether he believed the now almost three-month delay in appointing a new GECOM Chairman would adversely affect the elections schedule, Ramotar said it was unclear how much longer the President and the Opposition Leader would be locked in this dispute.

President Granger has rejected two lists of six nominees each. In the first instance, he had said that that list was not in keeping with his interpretation that the constitutional preference is for judges, retired judges or someone eligible to be a judge. Granger subsequently added other criteria including integrity and and independence including  that “that person will not be an activist in any form (gender, racial, religious etc)” and “that person should not have any political affiliation or should not belong to any political party in any form, apparent or hidden.”

Those on the second rejected list are Retired Justice of Appeal B.S Roy,  Retired Justice William Ramlall;  Attorney-at-law and a former Magistrate, Ms. Oneidge Walrond-Allicock; Attorney-at-Law, Kashir Khan;  Attorney-at-law, Nadia Sagar and businessman, Gerald Gouveia. The first rejected list had been made up of Governance and Conflict Resolution Specialist,  Lawrence Lachmansingh;  Attorney-at-Law and Chartered Accountant, Christopher Ram;  Retired Major General, Norman Mc Lean; Business Executive, Ramesh Dookhoo; Indian Rights Activist, Rhyaan Shah and History Professor, James Rose.

Oil and politics

The former Guyanese leader ruled out politically pressuring ExxonMobil to stall plans to extract oil commercially if it is perceived that revenues would be used by the incumbent government to give it an unfair advantage at the polls and enrich itself.

He said ultimately that oil company would be more interested in maximising its revenues if the price of oil is high, but might be inclined to delay production only if there is a slump.

“My view is that I don’t think Exxon will be concerned about our local politics and my view is that they will not be influenced by this. Maybe, they prefer to operate in an environment that is more stable and democratic but that is not their main priority. Their business is pumping oil and making big profits so I think it is futile to call on Exxon not to pump oil,” he said.

Ramotar prefers to bank on mobilising civil society, religious and other organisations if the PNC-Reform-dominated coalition stalls the holding of general elections.

He noted that the PNCR has said that President David Granger is committed to the ideals of his party’s founder leader, Burnham.  “This is not a regime that is thinking about the welfare of the country. This is what  I would describe as a bureaucratic elite that is using the State apparatus to enrich themselves and that is why they just don’t care that when they go to an undemocratic system that it will eventually impact on the country and the deterioration of every aspect of life will be horrible,” Ramotar said.

The then PNC-led administration had been consistently accused of holding on to power tenaciously through rigged elections and human rights abuses of its opponents including privately-owned media.

On the other hand, the PNCR, Alliance For Change and the Working People’s Alliance had repeatedly accused the then PPP-led administration of presiding over state-sponsored death squads in associating with shady characters such as convicted drug lord, Shaheed Roger Khan; suppression of privately-owned media that were critical of the government of the day, misuse of State resources for private gain and turning a blind eye to drug trafficking.