On free and fair elections in Guyana

Address by Ralph Ramkarran

New York Diaspora, 8th October, 2017)

October 5 will forever be remembered in the history of Guyana as the date when a short-lived democracy was restored. Our freedom was obtained on May 26, 1966, after a ‘fiddled constitutional arrangement,’ as described by Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the UK, when he was Opposition Leader. The constitutional arrangement was fiddled for the 1964 elections by the imposition of proportional representation, but there was no claim that the elections held in 1964 had been rigged. Nor was there any such claim in relation to the previous elections held in 1961, 1957 and 1953, all won by the PPP. The period of formal democracy lasted from 1966, the year of Independence, until 1968 when it was crushed, when the elections were first rigged.

The rigging of the 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 elections have been fully documented elsewhere and there is no need for me to set out the details. But I should remind you that the entire gamut of manipulative techniques was employed. Among them were overseas voting by non-existent persons, padded electoral lists in Guyana by non-existent and deceased persons, multiple voting, proxy voting, postal voting and ballot box stuffing. This was accomplished by removing the bottoms of the wooden boxes which were nailed in, removing the genuine ballots, stuffing the boxes with false ballots and nailing in the bottoms of the boxes. After the 1992 elections the PPP was told this by several persons who had participated in these events.

Ralph Ramkarran

Laws were passed that removed all but the formal powers of the Elections Commission and handed over the management of the elections to the Chief Elections Officer, who was appointed by the Government and not the Elections Commission. Counting of the votes at the place of poll was abolished and ballots were counted at regional centres. These were guarded by armed soldiers, and no Opposition observers were allowed to be present. Large scale intimidation was used to ensure that opposition polling agents were not allowed into polling stations or to follow the boxes in their own vehicles.

It is also important to recall that opposition to the rigging of elections never subsided. The People’s Progressive Party campaigned against the rigging of the 1968 elections in the period leading up to the elections. A strong campaign was launched in London. I was then active in the PPP UK Branch. That is how the British press became interested. The television programme, “The Making of a Prime Minister,” by Panorama, was a landmark event. The 1973 elections provoked even more international attention by TV programmes as well as greater internal and external opposition. I served as a member of the Elections Commission for that period and witnessed first hand the impotence of the Commission and the rigging of the elections. Struggles were also undertaken in the US, particularly in New York by the large Guyanese diaspora and these were particularly effective. Many of those persons are still involved in Guyana’s affairs, protecting our democratic gains and contributing ideas and resources to our development. We must not forget Guyanese in Canada and the Caribbean.

Polling Day: Guyanese queuing up to cast their ballots

The struggle of 1973 triggered new political formations and civil society groups including representatives of the main religious groups, which joined the struggle for free and fair elections. The most important of these was the WPA which played a substantial role in mobilizing and uniting the people against the government. The Catholic Standard, which obviously reflected the views of the Catholic Church, which had played a reactionary role in the early 1960s, constantly exposed abuses of all kinds. This was at a time when the flagship print media opposition, the Mirror, had been brought to its knees by the withdrawal of its capacity to obtain newsprint, even as gifts from the Jamaica Gleaner.

A major and significant struggle took place towards the end of the 1970s in the struggle against the referendum to remove the need for a referendum to amend the constitution. The government proposed a new constitution because of unnamed deficiencies of the alleged ‘colonial’ constitution. This triggered substantial political and civic unity against the referendum which was massively rigged. A boycott was called and the monitoring of the polling stations showed that only 15 percent of the electorate turned out to vote. The unity forged in this period was ultimately responsible, with many other factors, of course, for the restoration of free and fair elections in 1992.

The loss of Walter Rodney, the defeat in the referendum struggle in the late 1970s, the imposition of the new constitution in 1980 and the rigging of the elections of that year sapped enthusiasm but did not diminish the traditional struggle of the PPP for free and fair elections which was attracting more and more adherents in and out of Guyana.

The economy continued to plunge in a downward spiral and the government had no answer to the growing impoverishment of the Guyanese people.

One significant factor which had emerged since the time of the referendum which continued for the 1980 and 1985 elections was the refusal of PNC supporters in PNC strongholds to turn out to vote. By 1985 Burnham had died and Desmond Hoyte became president. This did not affect the 1985 elections which were as severely rigged as the past elections. The Patriotic Coalition for Democracy was formed in 1985 with the WPA and PDM and smaller parties and remained active up to the 1992 elections.

Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. There followed a dizzying series of reforms in the Soviet Union and a transformation of international relations, particularly between the Soviet Union and the United States and Europe. In Nicaragua where a decade old civil war had been ongoing, the Sandinista government agreed in 1989 to have supervised elections supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States. In fact, it was believed that it was at the instance of the United States that the Soviet Union pressured the Sandinista government into the agreement. It was expected that the Sandinistas would win. They lost the elections in early 1990.

Cde. Cheddi Jagan wrote to both President Bush and President Gorbachev in 1989. He reviewed the Nicaragua experience where the Soviet Union cooperated with the United States in having free and fair elections in which a friend of the Soviet Union was involved.

He then explained the Guyana situation where the United States had tolerated rigged elections since 1968 in order to prevent the PPP, a friend of the Soviet Union, from winning political office. The message in the letter was that if the Soviet Union can pressure one of its friends to hold free and fair elections at the instance of the United States, why couldn’t the United States pressure one of its friends, the PNC, to hold free and fair elections. There was, of course, no reply. But in his 1990 Republic Day message President George H.W. Bush expressed the hope that the upcoming elections would be free and fair. We felt that the die was cast. Free and fair elections were in the air.

The struggle had a far way to go to succeed. Congressmen and Senators, the most prominent being Senator Kennedy, were lobbied to send messages. The IMF and World Bank, which had provided Guyana an economic lifeline, held their hand until free and fair elections. More importantly, the mobilization in Guyana, the United States, the UK, Canada and the Caribbean was crucial. Eventually the Guyana Government was forced into accepting the Carter Centre as the main observer, which established a presence in Guyana from 1990, monitoring every detail of the process. By this time the GUARD Movement had emerged and began to mobilise a large part of the middle class who became vocal and came out on the streets.

It was not an easy task. There had to be a struggle for a new, expanded, Elections Commission. Eventually President Carter persuaded President Hoyte to remove former Chief Justice Bollers and asked us for six names to give to Hoyte to choose a chair. Myself and others worked hard to get the names. Most of the people we asked were very afraid but eventually we persuaded six distinguished Guyanese to allow their names to go forward. That’s how Rudy Collins was appointed and how the formula came into being.

We eventually won, as well, counting at the place of poll, the presence of polling agents and their accreditation, the signing of statements of poll by all polling agents as the basis of compiling the results and the presence of counting agents. For the compiling of the electoral roll the parties are now entitled to have party scrutineers monitoring the process.

While the frightening electoral violence of 1992, which I personally experienced, has continued after the following two elections, all the elections have been certified.

Unfortunately, recent experiences have taught us that continued vigilance is absolutely necessary. The arbitrary determination that the constitution meant that only a judge, a former judge or a person qualified to be a judge is qualified to be appointed as chair of the elections commission, that all six names must be acceptable, without a chair being yet appointed, suggests that instead of going forward in electoral matters, there is great danger of regression, of going backward.

The judiciary has upheld the generally accepted interpretation of the constitution that most lawyers have supported. The chief justice held that any fit and proper person, not being a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge, can be appointed; that both categories have equal weight; that if one person is found to be acceptable  that person ought to be appointed; and that the president must give reasons for rejecting names. This decision demonstrates that the judiciary today is not the judiciary of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Further, Guyana’s highest court is now the Caribbean Court of Justice, from which an appeal from our court of appeal can be made. The CCJ is wholly independent. While, therefore, vigilance continues to be necessary, the situation today is not what it was in the past.

Because of our history and the recent failure of the government to select a chair of the elections commission and misinterpreting the constitution, great fears are being generated in the country about the elections in 2020. I am not making any accusations, nor am I making any predictions. I am merely reflecting a concern among some that has arisen as a result of the events that I have described above.

These concerns have been aggravated by the economic and political situation which has been developing over the past two years. Guyana showed economic progress since 1992. It started during the Hoyte years shortly after the economic reforms and continued up to 1997. Economic growth slowed somewhat for some years then picked up again, outpacing economies in the region as well as during the world economic slowdown from 2008, by which Guyana was unaffected. There were many factors responsible for this. One was the continuous inflow of grants, aid and investments. Another was high commodity prices, in particular gold, and the Venezuelan market for rice. Yet another was better economic management. Even though I was not in the cabinet, I know from my political activity that progressing projects, getting them completed and spending budgetary allocations was one of the most vitally important tasks of the government. Generating economic activity and investing in the economy were understood to be vitally necessary for growth in the economy. Today, there is a chronic underspending right across the government.

The new government faced a downturn in commodity prices shortly after it came into office. It chose to treat with the declining government revenue as a result of the slump, mainly of gold and sugar prices and the loss of the Venezuelan market for rice, and reducing production in other areas such as forestry, construction and others, by increasing taxes, particularly value added tax. As these taxes take money out of the economy, economic activity is reducing and is unemployment is rising. As the average worker would say, things bad and getting worse. An alternative course could have been not to increase taxes that affect consumption and production and to aggressively spend every penny that was available. This course was not taken. The basic economic fact is that unless money is spent and/or invested in the economy, it would not grow. The Government appears to be incapable of spending its budgetary allocations. No explanation has been given as to the reasons and no enterprising journalist has investigated. Under the PPP, budgetary allocations were spend and there was much governmental and presidential effort that went into achieving this. Is the reason incompetence? Is the reason the firing of the people who undertook these complex tasks? We simply don’t know and the government does not appear to have a clue either.

There is no polling in Guyana so we are not aware of the views of the electorate. But my sense is that because of the economic downturn to 3 percent economic growth, enthusiasm for the government has substantially reduced. The AFC, which obtained a good deal of support from PPP supporters, has now lost that support. Some of the middle class supporters of the AFC have formed a new organization called RISE. It may well emerge as a political party. After the experience of the AFC I do not see any third party doing well unless certain conditions are satisfied. The disaffected sections of the electorate when the AFC contested elections in 2006, 2011 and 2015 are still somewhat dissatisfied, although the ethnic factor has resulted in the Indian and African portions of the AFC’s support to return to their traditional parties and thereby reduced the size of those dissatisfied. A third party has to analyse the disaffected sections of the electorate and present leaders who will attract those voters after doing the necessary groundwork. More than anything else, such a party must publicly pledge that it intends, if it does not gain a majority, never to join in any government and to hold the balance of power against the government formed to protect the people of Guyana. That is, assuming it gets enough seats to hold the balance of power.

The loss of elections after twenty years in power is traumatic for anyone as it was for the PPP. But a certain political logic exists in many countries. After two terms of the popular Bill Clinton administration and a growing economy, Al Gore lost the elections to George W, Bush because the US electorate did not want a third Clinton term. After two terms of the historic Barak Obama presidency and a growing economy, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, partly because a critical section of the electorate did not want a third Obama term. It is quite likely that the electorate in Guyana had the same feeling, despite all round progress in Guyana. In fact, Guyana was a much improved country to what it was ten years before.

The PPP needed another vision and a candidate who could believably and credibly articulate that vision. I am not saying that the candidate could not. I am saying that there was no vision to articulate. The vision of ‘Dawn of a new era’ was exhausted and could no longer work. The novelty of a new PPP government had worn off. The PPP was under severe criticism for many things and despite the progress, some of these criticisms were resonating among the electorate, including, as the results showed, among PPP supporters. One was corruption. The candidate said it was mostly perception, giving the impression that he intended to do nothing about this grave problem.

The PPP needed a new, different and commanding vision to motivate its supporters. Its vision needed in one sentence that would capture how it would address the criticisms which it was undergoing, how it would reduce political tension for the future, how it would continue economic progress and resolve of the problems in the sugar industry, in particular the Sheldon Factory. Such a vision would have been, in my humble view, constitutional reform which would enshrine ‘winner does not take all’ policy which Cheddi Jagan endorsed and promised up to 1991. The vision the PPP would have been putting forward was that there would be no losers in Guyana’s politics. There would only be winners. Elections would be a festival, celebrating our ethnicity, not a census, condemning the loser to marginalization. Not having conceived such a vision, the PPP failed to secure itself in office.

In any part of the rational political world, when a political party gains the highest votes at elections but not an absolute majority, it negotiates the support of one or more of the other political parties to ensure majority support to carry out its programme. This happens all over Europe and is happening in Germany as we speak. In 2011 the PPP won the most, but not a majority, of votes had two political parties in opposition, the APNU and the AFC. The failure or refusal of the PPP to negotiate a coalition or even a support arrangement with either or both of these parties was nothing but suicidal. The message of the electorate in 2011 was clear. It voted for a coalition. Later, the PPP/C government had an opportunity to save itself when the AFC tabled a no-confidence motion in 2011. The AFC offered to withdraw its motion if the Public Procurement Commission, which Parliament mandated ten years before, was appointed. The PPP refused to observe the constitution and was forced called elections.

You would have thought that once bitten, twice shy. But the lesson of 2011 was not learnt. Now facing a formidable coalition of APNU+AFC, the PPP refused to change its message or its course. They did the same thing but expected a different result. From the public pronouncements of Party leaders, it was clear that they misunderstood the reasons for the loss of 2011. They said that it was due to poor organization. They, therefore, worked at improving the party machinery. Without rectifying the fundamental problem, the absence of a motivating vision, the result was inevitable.

It is impossible to predict what the future holds. We don’t know what 2020, election year, holds for us. Every year the need grows for what Cheddi jagan called a ‘political solution.’ That cannot take place without constitutional reform, the objective of which will be to ensure that the main parties share in the government and end a half a century of political strife and instability based on ethnic suspicion, insecurity and discord. The controversies already surrounding the issues of oil show that a political solution in now more vitally necessary. Unless there can be agreement as to how the oil wealth is going to be managed, Guyana will end up like Trinidad and so many other oil countries which squandered their oil wealth and only those at the top benefitted. I want to leave you in no doubt that in twenty years, and even longer into the future, Guyana will be a vastly different and much richer country. But whether it will be a better, safer, more secure and comfortable country for Guyana’s long suffering working people and middle class, will depend on whether we can solve the political issue.

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