The embattled Steve Surujbally finally vacated his post as Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission last week. He will be remembered as a person who allowed the integrity of the electoral process to be severely questioned. He failed to be seen as being fair in carrying out his duties, as he is required to do, and got the Commission embroiled in too many controversies, including accusations of the Commission itself being involved in electoral malpractices. He turned out to be spineless.
His last act and utterings will serve to define his tenure as Chairmanship. Just before demitting office, at a final meeting of the Commissioners he used his casting vote as Chairman to vote against the PPP to retain the current Chief Elections Officer.
At his “farewell press conference” Surujbally unashamedly repeated the government’s view as to qualifications for the person to fill the post of Chairman. His view, like that of the country’s President, is that the Chairman should be a judge or qualified to a judge. He did so at a time when top lawyers on the government and opposition sides are still divided on the interpretation of the country’s constitution in this regard. By his own argument, then, he should never have been the Chairman and that in future a vet, as he is, would never again be Chairman.
In saying farewell, Surujbally tried to downplay the seriousness of the allegations of electoral malpractices by GECOM under his watch. He made out that the PPP was sour because it lost the elections.
Surujbally has it all wrong. This is not about who won or who lost. It is about free and fair elections and the integrity of the Elections Commission which has a constitutional mandate to oversee free and fair elections.
The PPP has earned the right to question poor practices by the Elections Commission. It has waged a relentless battle for decades to bring democracy to this country and at no time did it make frivolous accusations. The attacks on the elections machinery in the past by the PPP were echoed by all and sundry. The Commission had come under the influence of the PNC which rigged successive elections.
Surujbally had taken a detached attitude towards important issues raised by PPP Commissioners. One major such issue was the staffing of the election machinery. The Chairman resisted all proposals to have checks made on those in charge of critical aspects of election duties. His failure to agree on basic tests has led to allegations that elections day staff were in fact political activists. Even those who were identified as persons who conducted themselves inappropriately in past elections were said to be employed by the Commission. He has failed to resolve this matter to the satisfaction of all those concerned and this has led to a certain amount of loss of confidence n the system. This should never be!
Surujbally’s name will forever by associated with fake SOPs (Statement of Polls). Up until his last day in office, he cannot provide the Guyanese public with an iota of information on how did this happen. As the Head of the Commission this he should not have taken this matter as lightly as he did. This was a serious breach in the system and he should have launched an immediate and full scale investigation into the matter. Instead, he just brushed it aside. This is a total lack of seriousness which has led to further erosion of confidence in the Commission.
Many other important issues raised by the opposition to improve the work of the Commission and enhancing democracy in Guyana have been shelved. The introduction of electronic registration, voting and counting has been on the table for some time. Surujbally has treated these as non-issues.
It is to be hoped that the next Chairman will seek to renew confidence in the Commission’s ability to deliver free and fair elections and to resist the temptation to surrender to pressures and influences that would compromise the Commission. Surujbally failed in all of these.