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Learning from Guyana: and, COVID elections?

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The most meaningless holiday weekend of my life has at last elapsed. It would have been so refreshing if the weekend holidays, a span of Saturday to Wednesday, would have been in honour of our long-neglected Emancipation, but excusably the COVID pandemic presented formidable challenges in organizing suitable activities for the occasion. But it is equally clear that this Carnival replacement holiday was just that, and the circumstances had left the promoters of the “replacement” idea with limited possibilities. In the end we, who have suffered from economic losses due to the pandemic, have shot our productive selves in the foot.

Credit and praise must be given however to those committed folks among us, led by Sister Ideisha Jackson and the Sion Hill Community, for organizing Emancipation activities with the support of the Ministry of Culture. Initiatives like these remind us where we have to dig if we are to find the legendary “pot of gold”, in this case an understanding and appreciation of our history and culture.

Fortunately for me, and, I assume, thousands of other Caribbean citizens, the most positive aspect of the past weekend was the announced end to Guyana’s marathon election torture. Guyana, under the predecessor to the outgoing ruling party coalition, the APNU/AFC, the Peoples National Congress of the late Forbes Burnham, had earned itself an unenviable record for elections which were neither free nor fair. However, the behaviour of the outgoing administration, under President and former Head of the Army David Granger, must have made all but the most barefaced of supporters blush with shame. It took all of FIVE MONTHS, not to mention unsuccessful court challenges at all levels, for a winner of the election to be declared officially.

In the process we were subjected to a blatant disregard for the laws of Guyana, electorally and constitutionally, not to mention virtual contempt for the expressed will of the people. How could this happen in the Commonwealth Caribbean, in the very country which hosts the headquarters of CARICOM itself?

There are many lessons for us all in the recent Guyana experience, particularly for those Caribbean citizens due to exercise their right to vote in the next few months. Trinidad and Tobago is next on the cards, with elections to be held next Monday, August 10. That country, like Guyana, remains racially divided even after a quarter of a century and more of political independence. Unscrupulous politicians exploit these racial divisions for their own ends as has happened in Guyana since the UK and USA engineered a split in the multi-racial nationalist movement for independence more than five decades ago.

However, the post-election histrionics are not confined to countries with racial divisions like T&T and Guyana.

Increasingly politicians in the Caribbean have been behaving as though, once elected, they have a divine right to remain in power. Those on the other side, seem to presume that the only way they will not win an election is if there is cheating and embark on campaigning to convince their supporters that if they don’t win it must be “foul play”.

Except for the 2005 elections, every general election in SVG has been marred by post-elections claims of fraud, of one kind or another. We are about to go into another cycle with the allegations from 2015 still being bandied about.

Even the registration process is now being marred by partisan political intervention as witnessed in the disputed Central Leeward constituency. Clearly, beyond the contention of the parties for support of the electorate, there are broader issues relating to the conduct of elections and the legal and constitutional rules governing them.

But casting a huge shadow over elections is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a matter not yet openly addressed, but it is sure to have an effect on the conduct of elections. The regulations and protocols drawn up by the Health authorities will have influence right through the process from registration to voting day and even the pace of the counting of votes itself. We are accustomed to specific voting hours and to get results by the night of Election Day. If the COVID threat is still there will voting hours be extended for instance? And will the delay in counting raise suspicions of fraud?

This column has repeatedly raised the broader issues of the conduct of elections to take precedence over the desire for victory. That calls for a mature, joint approach to establish agreed-upon rules and methods of conduct. But we all seem to be consumed by who will win the elections, leaving the outcome to be subject to sour grapes and legal challenges.

The clock is ticking and we cannot do as in the past, that is wait until elections are on the doorstep to expect some hurriedly patched-up group under the auspices of the Christian Council, to provide counsel and to monitor the conduct of the elections, The Opposition clearly has grouses and one would expect that the governing party would have ideas of its own. Let us demonstrate our maturity by providing a mechanism for amicably resolving the differences and so avoid the post-elections trauma.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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