Guyana’s election machinery is not good value for money

Last week was not a mixed week for the nation. On one day, the front page of the Stabroek News read: ‘PPP/C addressing voter loss’ and ‘Granger says [APNU] not afraid of new elections,’ both reports arising out of press conferences by their respective parties. These followed comments made by AFC presidential candidate Mr Khemraj Ramjattan that suggested that as a politician he was not unopposed to the existing structure of the electoral body the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom).

Instead of the PPP/C Central Committee at its first sitting of the 2011 Regional and General Elections deliberating on how its government would pursue its economic and social agenda in the light of the changed landscape in the National Assembly, the report suggests that the high priests of the party were more concerned about the [2011] election strategy, and why it lost votes. Apparently seething from the loss of the Speakership of the National Assembly, it accused the APNU and the Alliance For Change (AFC) of defenestrating tradition from Parliament.

Interestingly, the word ‘defenestration’ is associated with not one, but two wars in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, in both cases fuelled by persons being thrown out of windows.

Mr Granger is reported to have said that he was not afraid about the prospects of government calling a new election and his group’s confidence in contesting such elections, since he did not believe that the vote-costing attitude of the government had changed for the better in six weeks.

While Mr Granger was reacting to a question from a reporter, I raise my own question whether any of the country’s political parties or civil society has considered the cost of elections in Guyana. This country has not held constitutionally required local government elections since 1994 – eighteen years! – making the claim of democracy less than convincing. And while most Guyanese and the independent observers are satisfied that the results declared by Gecom reflected the votes cast in the November 28 General and Regional Elections, there is almost unanimity that the playing field was not level; that the elections were not fair.

Exploding cost
But that is not the principal concern of today’s column. Rather it is about the cost of elections in Guyana and whether or not the country gets value for the billions it spends not only for the elections but in the intervening years as well. It is about the apparent comfort of the political class in burdening the ordinary citizen with exorbitant VAT and personal income tax which disproportionately hurt the poor and the lower paid employee, while making decisions on spending that completely ignore cost and value for money, and are sometimes designed to feather and further personal, political and commercial interests.

Guyana, with a voting population of less than half a million, has six commissioners, an Executive Chairman as well as a Chief Elections Officer. It also has approximately three hundred full-time staff. By contrast the Electoral Commission of Australia, with a voting population of over thirteen million has three commissioners, a part-time Chairman and one part time non-judicial member. They are supported by a deputy electoral commissioner and an electoral officer for each of the six states and the Northern State. It has about 875 staff operating out of 157 offices.

India, the world’s most populous democracy has seven hundred million voters, many of them not as literate or educated as the average Guyanese voter. Yet the professionally managed and fiercely independent Election Commission of India, with responsibility for the oversight, direction and preparation of the electoral rolls as well as election-related interaction with the Parliament, state legislatures, and the offices of the president and vice president delivers efficient and low-cost elections generally seen as free and fair. Local elections for urban and rural bodies are conducted by the various State Election Commissions. That country has a mere three commissioners, one of whom is designated the Chief Election Commissioner and all of whom are subject to term (five years) and age (65) limits, whichever comes first.

And how much is that?
Gecom is constitutionally responsible for the general direction and supervision of registration of voters and the administrative conduct of elections. These should be carried out with a view to ensuring impartiality, fairness and compliance with the provisions of the Constitution and any relevant Act of Parliament. For reasons that go outside of this column – but which include Gecom’s (and the courts, and the Audit Office’s) failure to take action to protect its own independence from the executive – the Commission since 1992 has failed to deliver on its complete mandate. To use the political parties as the excuse why some things are not done is nothing but a cowardly cop out.

Here is a summary of the expenditure by Gecom over the post-2006 election period 2007 to 2011. It shows that over the five year period, Gecom was funded from the public purse to the tune of over nine billion dollars, excluding any request which the Minister of Finance may bring to the National Assembly for any supplementary expenditure. As expected, the cost rose significantly in 2011 but even so it was only about a third of the expenditure for the electoral cycle, with some of the cost in the intervening period being attributable to the new registration exercise when new ID cards were issued.

Figures: G$’000
Source: National Estimates

Using the number of 475,000 eligible voters on the updated list, it has cost this country an astounding $19,000 per voter between 2007 and 2011. I have seen no statistics from anywhere around the world that comes close to this figure, one that clearly suggests caution as we make sounds about another round of elections. What is equally remarkable is that even in a non-election year the cost runs above two thousand dollars per person when the international average cost for elections runs much, much lower. Of course some part of that is understandable with an element of fixed cost for any elections body, regardless of the size of the electorate.

An example of overspending
But let us take a simple example of why the culture of cost control and management is so completely absent. Over the past five years each of the part-time, non-executive commissioners has earned a minimum of twelve million dollars. Compare that with the salary of the lowly teacher, the often maligned nurse or police officer who would have earned a mere two million dollars over the same five years. There seems neither logic nor justice that a part-time, under-employed commissioner often sitting there to carry out the wishes of the party, should earn more than five times the full-time public servant.

This column has been a persistent critic of the Audit Office but even they have expressed concerns over the integrity of the controls in Gecom, including financial management and stores controls and purchases of millions of dollars from untraceable suppliers. We have to expect better management of the billions made available to Gecom and which naturally come out of the same block of funds that inadequately provide for the health, education and other sectors. Think what some of that money can do for the University of Guyana or to ensure that there is an adequate supply of drugs in the regional hospitals and health centres or to enhance security.

Let us look at another table.

Election expenses as a percentage of National Budget

Figures: G$’Mn
Source: National Estimates

What this table tells us is that two out of every one hundred dollars spent in 2011 went towards Gecom for the administration of the elections. And to think that the cost of security is not included, or all the vote-buying and elections-related projects undertaken by the government, or the heavy campaign cost incurred by the parties!

I never feel safe making any claim for Guyana as the best or worst in the world but I can comfortably state that as a percentage of the national budget and on a per capita basis Guyana must have the most expensive election machinery in the world.

Following the elections there was much talk of reforming Gecom, talk that has subsided as APNU’s allegations of improprieties have receded into virtual silence. Something has to be done about our electoral machinery. A global survey published in June 2005 on the Cost of Registration and Elections offers some excellent insights on how we can cut down on the cost and yet deliver better results. Unfortunately Guyana was not included in the survey but one of the contributors was part of the Carter team that had recommended the 3-3-1 model for the 1992 elections.

That arrangement was intended to be temporary. It is time to bring it to an end and to introduce a cost efficient and politically effective model.

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