What are these tools? I was a member of the Elections Commission for the 1973 elections. I was also a member of the Elections Commission for the 1992, 1997 and 2001 elections. I have witnessed first-hand the ‘tools’ used in the darkest days of election rigging in 1973, the incipient steps in 1992 to put in place the basic tools to ensure free and fair elections and the explosion of resources, staffing, training, equipment, education, publicity, some of it with generous foreign help, for the Elections Commission. Since I had developed an interest in election management, I thereafter followed developments closely and was impressed with the work of the Elections Commission under its Chair Steve Surujballi to further perfect the election management methodologies. There is nothing in the structure of the Elections Commission or in its rules and practices, and no shortage of tools, that hinder free and fair elections. It is the culture of thievery that is deeply embedded in one part of our political culture that is responsible for election rigging. Unless there are structural reforms to our governance system, this culture of thievery will persist.
In 1985 I learnt a lesson that I have never forgotten and that manifested itself in 2020, not to my surprise. Forbes Burnham passed in 1985. By that time, he had become a highly reviled figure, particularly among the middle class, some of whom had been his erstwhile supporters. At that time, I had been the Secretary of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA) whose membership embraced a wide spectrum of political opinion. The entire executive and members of the GBA were adamantly opposed to the PNC’s transgressions relating to free and fair elections. The GBA was then one of the most prominent civil society/professional body, of which there were very few, that loudly advocated human rights and free and fair elections. Fear and intimidation were rampant.
No sooner had Burnham passed and Desmond Hoyte was elected PNC Leader and President, many of the same executives and members of the GBA who had adamantly opposed rigged elections found no difficulty with the rigging of the 1985 elections and climbed on the Hoyte bandwagon. It was therefore no surprise to me that at this time there were only a few muffled voices protesting the attempt to rig the elections of 2020 and that the vociferous civil society that does not spare the PPP or its governments, fell largely silent. Civil society must not now complain when some articulate what they believe to be its tarnished record. The voice of Stabroek News must be accorded a place of distinction in its campaign for free and fair elections not only for 2020 but for 1992 and prior thereto.
This history demonstrates that rigged elections, or the attempt to rig elections by the PNCR, once it is in office, will always be a part of its political armoury. Changes in the structure of the Elections Commission have been propounded as the panacea to eliminate political posturing from its deliberations and elevate its work to a higher professional level. I have worked under four Chairmen of the Elections Commission, all of whom were professional men of the highest integrity. I can vouch for the fact that political overhang influences decision-making. There was nothing partisan about this. Public views from political parties on specific issues will always influence election commissioners no matter how independent they are. The objective of professionalizing the membership of the elections commission, while laudable, will not resolve the issue of election rigging by the PNCR to obtain or remain in office illegally.
Those who are interested in exploring tools for free and fair elections must look deeper into Guyana’s political culture for ways to eliminate ethno-political dominance as an outcome of Guyana’s ethnic historical mix and political upheavals stirred with a heavy dose of foreign intervention. The harm that was done to Guyana and the poisonous trail of life and death political dominance, now fed by a daily diet of accusations of ethnic discrimination, cannot be underestimated. The attempt by the PNCR to rig the 2020 elections, supported by the AFC, has harmed any progress to inclusive governance. The PPP’s manifesto contained such a proposal. PPP leaders will no longer hear about it, even from the US Secretary of State. The APNU+AFC manifesto contained a proposal for shared governance in 2015. It reneged on that promise and sought to hold on to power illegally deploying anti-Indian violence in West Berbice. These acts have destroyed any hope or expectation that there will be any serious discourse on a political solution to Guyana’s ethno-political dilemma any time soon.
The events of 2020 have spawned a negative political culture which will take years to recover. President Ali first refused to speak to Joe Harmon, then Opposition Leader, unless he ‘recognised’ the government. When Aubrey Norton became PNCR’s leader and Leader of the Opposition, he refused to extend normal courtesies to President Ali. The attempt by the US Ambassador, Sarah-Ann Lynch, to mediate a meeting was rejected by the President. In other words, the elusive search for a political solution proposed by Cheddi Jagan in 1978 , for which he campaigned for decades thereafter, will continue.