COMMENTARY By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
In the wake of a report to the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States (OAS) on the Guyana general elections of March 2, the Head of the Electoral Mission (EOM), former Jamaica Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, has been accused of being “exceptionally partisan” and “hostile to the nation and people of Guyana”.
Surprisingly, this accusation has been made by Mr Joseph Harmon, a senior official of the APNU-AFC alliance and a senior member of the caretaker government in Guyana. I say “surprisingly” because Mr Harmon should know that the Office of the President, of which he was – and is – an integral part, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officially advised the OAS Secretariat that there was “no objection” to Mr Golding leading the OAS EOM for the elections.
This “no objection” came after Mr Golding, in full disclosure and transparency, informed the OAS Secretariat, when approached to lead the team, that he had been, at one time, a guest in the home of Opposition leader and former President of Guyana, Mr Bharat Jagdeo. So, this matter was openly disclosed, and the Guyana government registered that it had no objection.
For general knowledge, it is worth recording that the OAS carries out an extensive search in its appointment of members of EOMs, particularly the persons to lead such missions. Mr Golding was approached to lead the mission to Guyana based on his authority as a former CARICOM Head of Government and his knowledge and experience of general elections in the Caribbean.
Members of the team were 17 seasoned experts and observers of general elections from 13 countries. Therefore, when Mr Golding presented an “Update on the Electoral Process in Guyana” to the OAS Permanent Council on May 13, he did so with the full backing of the team that had spent 16 days, observing the run up to the elections, polling day on March 2 and the subsequent debacle that started on March 5 when, unlike nine of the ten regions that had proceeded in accordance with electoral law, the final tabulation of Region 4 was questioned by all the Observer Missions – not only the OAS, but also the missions from the Carter Centre, the European Union, CARICOM and the Commonwealth.
The latter mission was led by another former Prime Minster and senior Caribbean statesman, Owen Arthur of Barbados. Mr Arthur was an eyewitness to the actual elections and its aftermath, and he and his team have meticulous records on which he will obviously draw when he makes his own public statement. He is not expected to be any less critical of events surrounding the tabulation of Region 4 than was Mr Golding whose remarks at the OAS meeting that he “had never seen a more transparent effort to alter the result of an election”, and that “It takes an extraordinarily courageous mind to present fictitious numbers when such a sturdy paper trail exists”, are a serious condemnation of the officials of the Guyana Electoral Commission.
It is significant that all the Observer missions, including the OAS, highly commended the “conduct of a credible process” on election day. The problem was not the voting; it was the tabulation of votes in Region 4 where the Statement of Poll by the Returning Officer varied greatly from the Statement of Poll which all the political parties had in their possession, since their agents were present for the counting of each vote.
In this regard, the point made in a joint statement by the CARICOM Group, at the same OAS meeting at which Mr Golding presented his update, is significant. “If each of the political parties genuinely believe it has won, then they should have no fear of the current recount, and they should all support it”.
A credible and transparent recount of the votes over which representatives of CARICOM are scrutineers, and the peaceful acceptance of the result by all parties, are crucial to Guyana’s future. If the recount is up ended under any pretext and the CARICOM scrutineers cannot pronounce it transparent and credible, the swearing-in of any government will be regarded as illegal with grave consequences particularly for persons involved. Guyana, itself, instead of proceeding on a path of progress will be mired in international odium, halting the economic growth and social improvement to which its people have been looking forward.
The international community is giving CARICOM an opportunity to help Guyana out of this morass. In its joint statement at the OAS meeting, CARICOM stated it has “no interest in which political party wins the election; CARICOM’s interest is that, at the end of the recounting process, democracy must be the winner”.
The global community has taken CARICOM at its word, as expressed at the OAS meeting that “If democracy fails in any CARICOM country, it fails in the larger Community. As an institution, CARICOM cannot allow this to happen in any member state”. Significantly, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro declared that the OAS is content “at this stage” to support CARICOM’s efforts.
CARICOM’s engagement, by the invitation of Guyana’s President and Opposition leader with the agreement of GECOM, is to scrutinize the recount of the votes “in an effort to see a transparent and credible result, and a legitimate government elected at its end”.
It is in the interest of all the political parties and other actors in Guyana to help themselves by ensuring that CARICOM carries out its task successfully. For, if CARICOM is seen to fail, then others will take its place. As the US Ambassador in Guyana recently had to point out, not that the US wishes it, but there could be “serious consequences if the democratic process, the rule of law, and the principles of democracy are not followed in Guyana”.
The US is not likely to be alone in actions that would have to be taken by regional and international governments.