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Friday, March 24, 2006
GECOM decisions needed urgently
Stabroek News
-technical assessment

Having arrived at a critical stage in the electoral process, the Guyana Elections Com-mission (GECOM) needs to decide on key matters, like the production of a preliminary list, in order to meet its deadline and to address the concerns of the political stakeholders, a technical study says.

"GECOM has arrived at a critical stage in Guyana's current electoral process in which clarification of fundamental policy is urgently required to address stakeholder concerns," the latest Joint International Technical Assessment (JITA) report says. Based on a memo signed by the Government of Guyana, GECOM and the donor community, two JITAs have been stationed here to monitor the technical conduct of election preparations at all levels. In the document, dated March 13, 2006, assessor Stephen Beale also notes that the commission must clearly reinforce its commitment and readiness to conduct an acceptable election before the August 4 constitutional deadline.

It says the GECOM Secretariat continues to make progress in its preparation for delivering elections prior to the deadline, and arrangements for Claims and Objections remain in tandem with GECOM's election management plan, while the Preliminary List of Electors (PLE), pending instructions from the commission, would enter scheduled production in the last week of this month. GECOM, at the time of the report's compilation, had printed (at a rate of 3,000 a day) roughly 18,000 of a potential 70,000 ID cards required for new registrants and transferees.

However, the question of whether there will be a verification of the 2001 Official List of Electors in order for it to be used in the creation of a new national register remains up in the air. GECOM Chairman Dr Steve Surujbally, at a press conference on February 15, had said that the commission was considering a seven-step sample method. Since that time there have been unofficial reports emanating from the commission that indicate that a verification, either by full house-to-house or any other method, is no longer part of the elections plan. The opposition parties in Parliament have been pressing consistently for a house-to-house verification. They say this is one of the conditions on which they accepted the use of the 2001 Official List of Electors as the basis for the 2006 preliminary voters list. GECOM has not held a press conference since February 15.

The JITA report - the fourth assessment thus far - said GECOM had concluded that insufficient time remained for any form of house-to-house verification prior the deadline for holding elections. (It should be noted, though, that as the report acknowledges it was unclear whether this was a formal GECOM resolution or a de facto understanding). The situation remains the same now, as while some GECOM officials say there is a majority acceptance that verification is not possible, it has also been stated that there has been no vote or consensus on the matter. In the event that there is a formal resolution, the JITA report recommends "GECOM should formalise a methodology and disseminate it to all political stakeholders." This has not been done.

At the same time, the report also advised that GECOM should immediately formalise procedures that are required to prepare for the Claims and Objections period. GECOM has indicated, by way of notices and advertisements in the newspapers, it is in the midst of preparations for Claims and Objections. The 29-day exercise is tentatively scheduled to begin on April 5, and 99 offices are being identified and equipped throughout the country to accommodate the process. In addition, roughly 300 temporary staff has been trained. Indeed, the report said that while developing a public awareness campaign required attention, GECOM appeared well prepared for the exercise.

Prior to Claims and Objections, however, the report noted that the Preliminary List of Electors (PLE) must be prepared, certified, printed and distributed. The GECOM Secretariat requires a minimum of 16 days for this task, although production cannot begin without instructions from the commission. As a result, the urgent need for policy direction was again reiterated.

Fingerprints

Also noted in the report was the signing of contracts between the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), Manage-ment Services and Support Inc. (MSS) to allow for the scanning and cross-referencing of fingerprints of registrants listed on the 2001 OLE and new registrants. GECOM announced on Monday that the exercise, which is scheduled for three months, had started, following a delay of about the same time. According to the assessment, the delay will require a number of imminent decisions, the most urgent being whether the exercise can run concurrently with the Claims and Objections process. The latest possible date for Claims and Objections for an election prior to the constitutional deadline is April 29, and consequently GECOM must resolve whether certification of the PLE will be done on only partial results of the EOJ programme, or full results. The report says that should GECOM require full results then an election date prior to the constitutional deadline would be unlikely. In this regard, it was recommended that GECOM clarify the scope of the EOJ exercise and assess its potential impact on the election timetable and, if necessary, identify means to expedite the process.

Stabroek News understands that GECOM has sought and received legal advice on whether Claims and Objections can be conducted simultaneously with the EOJ exercise. Two legal opinions indicated that it is allowable, although the idea of producing a list while an exercise to check the veracity of its source is ongoing has been called into question by spokespersons for the opposition parties.

Meanwhile, the failure to revise the elections project plan, which has been criticised by opposition-nominated commissioner Haslyn Parris did not escape mention in the assessment. In fact, it notes that the plan had become the centre of much discussion among stakeholders. "The plan, in its current form, however, does not reflect the true state of GECOM's readiness to deliver an election within the prescribed timeframe," it says. It explained that significant election activities and processes were not removed, updated or added since the generation of the plan. Recent GECOM policy decisions were not reflected in the plan either, although they require continuous monitoring and updating in order to avoid obsolescence. Nonetheless, the report says, GECOM continues to use the plan as a tool to critically assess its work, often to its own detriment. As a result, it was suggested that the plan be regularly reviewed and updated to reflect new activities, such as the fingerprint matching exercise, or remove unachievable ones, such as a door-to-door verification.

The JITA report also said that legal drafters have recently proposed additional amendments to the Representation of the People Act and presented to GECOM for discussion. With Parliament due to be prorogued in the first week of May, it was noted that GECOM must ensure that the proposed amendments are expeditiously discussed and approved, providing sufficient time for Parliament to pass the amendments.