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OPINION: Amendments to the Representation of the People Act, the good, the bad, and the ugly

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 November 2021, 16:15 by Denis Chabrol

by GHK Lall

The proposed draft amendments to the Representation of the People Act, all six thousand, five hundred and more words, have strong pluses, some glaring minuses.  The priorities rightly target fraud and attempts at fraud, but only partially and selectively, I believe.  I think that some areas that were left untouched open the door for more disputes, and the endless wrangling that are so much an inseparable component of politics in this country, generally; and elections, in particular.  I start with the positives, which I believe will go some way to help in reducing some of the excesses, and outright absurdities that have taken place every elections season here.

For starters, there was a keen eye for, and spirited moves towards, closing loopholes and opportunities to exploit them, which I interpret to be largely directly traceable to the lessons from last year elections, and the postmortems performed on that fiasco.  There is this heavy emphasis on fraud prevention, official wrongdoing, and the attendant sanctions for violations.  I think those are in order.  The combination of hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences do not speak to discretion and remediation, but of powerful caution and conviction: don’t do this, don’t think of it, don’t dare go anywhere near there.  Or else, walk with toothbrush and pajamas, as it will be a long stay.

Second, at almost every level, the draft material takes focused and sharp aim at fraud prevention, through a number of arrangements, and always with punishing sanctions brandished warningly.  In terms of the mechanics and structure of the proposed amendments, they are thick and dense, would be torturous and mindboggling to an outsider unfamiliar with our experiences and, what I shall label as our nimbleness and innovations, with things elections.  It as if the PPP Government, no slouch in the electoral skullduggery department, went on the warpath, to neutralize what menaces process and efficiency, and the people responsible for such.  The amendments seek to limit severely, if not eradicate, those areas that have long been exploited by political adversaries.  They include: ballot papers, polling places, electoral processes, and enemy practices, now mostly well known to Guyanese.  Another is the substitution clause to cover in the event of the unavailability of one or ones involved (the Mingo Factor) at district/subdistrict levels.  Though by no means exhaustive, I recognize this, at a general level, for what it is: a savvy set of proposed amendments, a draft of cleverly devilish proportions, with American Republican fingerprints plastered all over, and a foxy package heavily favoring the PPP.  I say this because these draft amendments don’t go near certain places, which are advantageous to the ruling party.

Third, I am surprised (to put it mildly) that some existing elements have been retained, and some new ones have been introduced.  In no particular order, I visit them and touch on them with a quick, faint brush.  To begin with, there should be provision for substitute identification for voting on election day.  My position is simple: no national identification card (exception for a valid Guyana passport), no voting.  On a similar note, there ought to be no allowance for proxy voters/voting.  Turn up and vote, or don’t turn up at all, in any other form or shape or place.  Moreover, this space proposed in Section 70 (2) (3A) “to take the oath of identity in the form prescribed” before an electoral officer should have no place in local electoral arrangements.  When taken together, there are simply too many places to be exploited, and which political operators and supporters are only too ready to explore for the usual ends.  I move on.

Fourth, in Section 84 (1) there is the substitution of “as soon as practicable” don’t do that; be finite.  Give a number.  In most other sections of the proposed amendments, there is tightening with “immediate” and other specifics about time clearly spelt out.  Going in the other direction with “as soon as practicable” is too open-ended, too fraught with danger in a place like Guyana; could be forever.  I am concerned about the manipulations that contribute to elections corruptions, and intensify racial and social furies.  Be rid of that replacement phrase, as it can lead to nothing good.  I guarantee.

Fifth, Section 6 (7) addresses rental of available private facilities, if there are no available public spaces for polling activity, with the condition that they be “unconnected to a political party or politician.”  That certainly looks good on paper, but I have difficulty in finding any place locally that could be considered “unconnected.”  Even our supposed sacred sanctuaries (places of worship) have been profaned by political connections and influence; mostly for the worst purposes.  I say that when private must be the case, let it be central, accessible, and open to scrutiny.

Sixth, the division of Region Four into four subdistricts makes for some statistical sense, since it is the most populous, most troublesome, and most subject to heavy infiltrations and manipulations (by both sides).  Those range from spreadsheets tampered with, ballot boxes reengineered, and hostilities concentrated.  In the next breath, it is definitely more logistically accessible, more technologically connected, and more politically scrutinized than its brethren.  Still further, the geography, for one, does not demand this subdivision.  So, the question I ask myself (and others) is: why?  A brief could be advanced for time, convenience, and bulk, all practical considerations.

But I ponder if this is not a tricky political stick and carrot combination.  In view of what was claimed about ballot boxes on the East Coast, and similar disturbing matters in Georgetown, I think that several purposes are served.  Separate sheep from goats, dilute potential fraud concentrations and visions, and work a little electoral magic for self in between.  I am still trying to figure out where the final subdistrict boundaries are going to be, and the reactions to those.  Also, the disposition of the four subdistricts’ seven (7) seats in the National Assembly, without fractions.  I believe that the subdistricts redrawing could be a source of contention.

Seventh, and rather curiously, given the level of anxieties over electoral lists, the proposed amendments were noticeably silent in this regard.  I regard that as an opportunity missed to put to bed.  The amendments furnished the occasion to address with authority and finality, and also those issues that surfaced last year about residence and overseas voters.  I am sure that I saw no such things.

My final thoughts are that the amendments have helpful elements, some suspicious ones, components to be raged over, and sensitive parts missing.  The PPP started out with something as intricate as these amendments with a top-down mindset.  That is, alone; and this is what it is, take it or leave it.  From the very start, it ought to have involved the widest cross-section of Guyanese, as possible.  Now, the exercise in consultations, a patented fraud by itself, takes over.  Since a simple majority is all that is needed, this was over before it started.  Happy voting, Guyana.