Editorial | Guyana must tread with care
Using the law to settle political scores is a tactic often employed by authoritarian governments and their leaders, which we hope is not what is happening in Guyana. It has no place in liberal democracy.
Last week, Keith Lowenfield, Guyana’s chief electoral officer, who courted controversy in the aftermath of last March’s disputed elections, was arrested for misconduct and fraud on complaints brought by two supposedly private citizens. The police, meanwhile, have opened a separate investigation into Mr Lowenfield’s conduct during the elections. The expectation is that Guyana’s government prosecutors will assume responsibility for all the cases – the private ones and whatever the police come up with.
While this newspaper vehemently disagreed with some of Mr Lowenfield’s actions, including defying the orders of Guyana’s Electoral Commission (GECOM) after a recount of the ballots, and urged his firing by the commission, we perceive something more than slightly mephitic in current events in Georgetown. President Irfaan Ali must be careful that it does not evolve into something far more malodorous and politically uncontainable.
A broadly sketched background to these developments may be useful.
At the counting of the ballots following the poll, President Ali’s People’s Progressive Party and its Civic ally (PPP/Civic) built up a substantial lead in the mostly rural districts where it enjoys the bulk of its support, primarily among Indo-Guyanese. That meant that the then governing coalition, A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance for Change (APNU/AFC), needed to do exceptionally well in its Afro-Guyanese base to win the election. It appeared, from the unofficial reports, to have been doing just that and would eke out a narrow victory.
However, before the results were declared, PPP/Civic contested the number and complained of fraud. This led, eventually, to a recount of all the votes, monitored by overseers appointed by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In the meantime, supporters of the APNU/AFC went to court to challenge the process.
The CARICOM-invigilated recount showed a narrow victory for PPP/Civic. But in rejecting the raw aggregate numbers, and claiming myriad irregularities unearthed during the recount disqualified tens of thousands of votes, Mr Lowenfield refused to validate PPP/Civic’s victory, despite being ordered to file a return on the basis of the recount.
He further felt fortified by an initial ruling by Guyana’s appeal court that the election of the president should be based on votes validly cast for that purpose. On that basis, he filed a return – which was rejected by GECOM – that gave APNU/AFC a narrow victory, and relented only after a ruling by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which said that he had overstepped his authority. The legitimacy of PPP/Civic’s victory is now being challenged in the courts by way of election petitions, which is the course the CCJ argued that aggrieved parties should have followed all along.
Whatever may have been Mr Lowenfield’s underlying motivations, his actions were in tandem with court proceedings, initiated by others, and his interpretation of the latitude allowed him by the law. We disagreed with some of his actions but were mindful that there was no complaint of abuse of process by the courts when asked to rule on the various challenges. In Guyana, with its ethnic-based politics and badly rent race relations, institutional tolerance is important. That is why we find the current developments of concern.
OTHER THAN NOBLE
GECOM, insofar as we are aware, has brought no disciplinary charges against Mr Lowenfield or any of his subordinates. Indeed, it is from that agency that we expected the complaints and legal action against Mr Lowenfield to emanate. His arrest by the police after complaints by private citizens and known supporters of the ruling party, with a requirement of his bail being that he also reports to the police for further questioning, inspires fears that the motives are other than noble and that institutions of the state are being perhaps deployed to partisan ends.
Two presumptions are in circulation. One is that the arrest and humiliation of Mr Lowenfield, whatever the eventual outcome of the case against him is, of itself, punishment. An end in itself. The other is that the presence of these charges will taint him as a witness if he were to be called in the election petition matters.
The grave danger, in our view, is the potential for the further ethnic polarisation of politics in Guyana, and with it ethnic relations. Sometimes, even in the midst of right, or the presumption thereof, it makes sense to tread lightly.
In this regard, we remind President Ali of his remark in his inaugural address: “I will not see a nation divided by ethnicity; I will see a nation cemented in unity.” Often, in tenuous situations, such as exist in Guyana, definitions start with perceptions, which may be reinforced by early missteps.