The third force was poised to be kingmaker. Both the PPP/C and APNU needed its support to secure leadership spots and it, too, was nicely positioned. Instead, its non-committal stance on supporting either side, mistrust and perceived deception, doomed its chances; its political naivety unable to counter manoeuvrings that resulted in it being shut out, an obscure law deployed to expose its weakness.
National politics? Not quite but according to political analyst Dr Henry Jeffrey, a manifestation of Guyana’s pervasive political unaccountability. It all went down on November 30 when the elected members of the Beterverwagting/Triumph Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) turned up to take their oath of office following the November 12 local government elections (LGE).
The players: the 8th of May Movement (8MM), a community grouping, and national heavyweights, the PPP/C and APNU. At the elections, 8MM won four seats, the PPP/C six and APNU eight seats. At stake were the chairman and vice-chairmanship of the NDC. Outside of both supporting each other, the clearest path for the heavyweights to gain the positions was with the support of 8MM and both courted the grouping.
In the 2016 LGE, the 8MM had won 12 seats, the PPP/C five and independent candidate Jimmaul Bagot the remaining seat on the 18-member council. APNU did not participate then.
With 8MM controlling the council, its leader Leyland Harcourt was elected NDC chairman and he was able to unite councillors from 8MM, the PPP/C and Bagot to make several improvements in the community. However, complaints about the “disparity” in development between the communities of Triumph and BV led to dissent especially from 8MM which felt that BV was not benefitting as much as it should from the infrastructure development being executed. This dissent was repeatedly voiced throughout the campaign leading up to the last LGE on November 12 in which APNU sought to regain control of its former stronghold.
Also voiced was a complaint from both the PPP/C and APNU that a candidate for 8MM was illiterate.
The two parties contended that this candidate’s inclusion on the ballot was in direct violation of Section 40 (2) (h) of the Local (Authorities) Elections Act which states that “no person shall be qualified to be elected as councillor or if so elected to hold or continue in office as a councillor if he is unable to read or write the English Language.”
Stabroek News had brought the complaint to the attention of Chief Election Officer Keith Lowenfield who explained that such a matter needed to have been addressed on nomination day. “We have gone past the nomination day process…You know we don’t have an investigative arm and we accept applications with the view that all those who would have applied as candidates they would have satisfied the criteria,” he had said.
Lowenfield’s comment was an echo of the response received by the complaining groups from the Returning Officer that GECOM “has no way to check” if the candidate was literate or not.
“We said to her (the Returning Officer) we could bring her a copy of the Pat and Roy book for him to try but she wouldn’t allow it,” one candidate told this newspaper.
The ‘illiterate’ candidate won his constituency by a landslide and swearing in of the new NDC was set for November 30.
According to Jeffrey, only days before the swearing in, with help from Congress Place, APNU believed that a deal was brokered with 8MM for it to have the chair and 8MM the deputy chair. The PPP/C was also making advances to 8MM to give it the chair in return for the deputy position, the political analyst wrote in his `Future Notes’ column for the Stabroek News.
“However, 8MM took the position that there was no deal with either party, only proposals. To the extent that the PPP/C would have loved to defeat the APNU in its stronghold; to a similar extent APNU could not have countenanced being out-manoeuvred by the PPP/C and 8MM and it was on the basis of this perception of possible deception by 8MM that APNU hatched its plot of disenfranchisement that was responsible for the unseemly behaviour that took place,” Jeffrey wrote.
According to Bagot, who joined the APNU slate for the last elections, the council found its own way to do what GECOM couldn’t.
“The residents of the NDC deserve to be competently represented. We have minutes to read and correct. Reports to go through and if he can’t recognised what is put in front of him then he can’t give his constituents the best representation,” he told Stabroek News.
On the morning of the swearing-in, each councillor was required to read the oath; a process which moved smoothly until councillor Oscar Glasgow of 8MM requested that the oath be read by the overseer and he be allowed to repeat. The same request was made by councillor Laticia Stuart also of 8MM.
The grouping has maintained that it was the “common practice” that councillors repeat the oath but spectators gathered in the council chamber were unimpressed and objected vociferously to the request. Eventually, Glasgow was sworn in via the requested method while the three other elected councillors were denied.
Consequently, the combined PPP/C and 8MM seats remained one short of the APNU’s eight seats, not enough to carry a vote.
According to Glasgow, 8MM knew of the accusations of illiteracy but chose to not to address them. “These accusations were peddled during the campaign but we chose to run a clean campaign and focus on educating citizens about why they should vote. In asking that the oath be read we were not asking for anything out of the ordinary. This is the common practice,” he stressed.
Bagot, however, described the move by Glasgow and Stuart as an attempt to create a precedent which failed.
“At BV/Triumph we read the oath. Everyone else read. We know the two of them can read. They hold Masters etcetera so they were just attempting to create a precedent but the audience wouldn’t allow it,” he contended.
Stabroek News understands that the illiterate candidate in question had also shown up with a recording of the oath and ear phones so that he could simulate the reading. It appears, however, that there was some sort of collusion on the part of at least some councillors and the overseer as the oath taken was “subtly” different from that taken in 2016 which appears as a template in the Municipal and District Council’s Act.
Images shared of the 2016 swearing in ceremony show all but the councillor in question reading the oath while the overseer appears to lead him through the script.
According to Jeffrey, in order to prevent any embarrassment to its member who could not read properly, and more specifically, to overcome the possibility of his being disqualified by what they believed was an APNU-inspired plot, 8MM had decided to ask the overseer to read the oath to each of them. She eventually did so for the first councillor but then decided she was not going to read for the second, and a quarrel began.
Jeffrey wrote that the overseer then sought to proceed to the nomination of office holders and a walkout was initiated by the PPP/C chairperson, who agreed with the position taken by 8MM. The parties were later recalled with a promise that the oath would be read to the 8MM councillors but by that time two had left for home and efforts were being made for them to return. In the meantime, the meeting moved to nominations for office bearers and the leader of the PPP/C Lalloo Tekchand was first nominated as chairperson by a councillor who had remained after the walkout. However, after some consultation with the APNU, Tekchand was finally nominated as deputy chairperson and Bagot was nominated as chairperson.
According to Jeffrey, the overseer then read the oath to and swore in the first of the remaining three 8MM members who were now present, but then, claiming that she could not read, refused to do so for the other two. “This prompted another 8MM walkout, but not surprisingly this time without the PPP/C who was about to receive the most it could have expected from the process, as with the apparent support of APNU, its chairperson was nominated for the deputy position,” he said.
Bagot was elected chairperson unopposed and with the APNU votes split on the vice-chairman post, Tekchand won the post with support from one APNU councillor. 8MM, in a statement, said that the actions of the overseer equate to “disenfranchisement” as it rendered three of its four councillors ineligible to vote though they presented themselves as elected members to be sworn in.
“We of the 8th of May Movement feel that our councillors were disenfranchised on account of the overseer’s negligence and apparent partisan approach which caused our councillors to be ineligible to participate in what was supposed to be a democratic process of electing the village chairman and vice-chairman,” the statement said.
Tekchand had said that it was the intention of the PPP/C to coalesce with 8MM so as to carry a vote. However, 8MM denied this and said this can be substantiated by the minutes of meetings held between the two groups.
“Our organisation is founded on the principles of integrity, transparency and accountability and as such we refuse to be a part of anything that lacks those principles or seeks to place us in a negative view by questioning our credibility,” 8MM said. According to the grouping, they will “continue to represent the needs of our supporters and the residents of both Beterverwagting and Triumph equitably. We will continue to be the voice of those whose cries go unheard because silence is not an option.”
According to Jeffrey, 8MM – though it was well placed to win either the chair or the vice-chairmanship but ended up with neither – did not give sufficient thought to the process in which it was involved.
“Firstly, it did not take sufficient time to allay the suspicions of the other contesting parties, particularly APNU, who felt that it was being deceptive and possibly in cahoots with its arch-enemy, the PPP/C,” he said.
“Secondly, proper account was not taken of the fact that Guyana has a substantial history of prioritising political designs over the law. For example, during the colonial period without PPP participation, much less agreement, the British, routinely changed the law to gerrymander geographical constituencies in favour of those they wanted to win. The distribution of state lands at Pradoville 2, refusing the workers collective bargaining, the quarrel over severance pay, the president looking us all in the face and saying that according to the constitution, only judge-like persons could become the chair of the Guyana Elections Commission, and the recent charge from the chairperson of the PNCR to her elected councillors are but a smattering of cases in point,” he wrote.
Rather than trying to close a deal one way or another before the swearing-in began, the 8MM strategy appeared to have been to play fast and loose at that occasion in the hope of winning the chair, he said.
“This approach is rarely recommended in negotiation processes and when coupled to the corrosive cultural context above it became lethal to its aspirations. The larger problem is that since a general process of political accountability does not exist in Guyana, there is no end in sight to the above political behaviour and thus it must, consistently, be properly taken into account,” he declared.
“The existence of the 8MM has provided insight into how exciting politics would be in less bifurcated political conditions, but a level of naivety allowed the 8MM to fall foul of Guyana’s pervasive political unaccountability,” he said.