The PPP/C’s accepted defeat by 5,000 votes in 2015 and promptly departed from office, without a recount of votes in some challenged areas. It was generally believed that with a smooth political transition, the era of debilitating election controversies had come to an end and future results would be accepted, even if challenged in court, as is the usual practice. The events of March to August this year has proven that both rigged and disputed elections are here to stay and that if the APNU+AFC ever gets into office again, it will remain there forever, or for decades, as from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, by both hook and crook.
If condemnation from the entire Western world, Caricom, the OAS representing Latin America, North America and the Caribbean, finally followed by US sanctions, took five months to dislodge APNU+AFC from office, then with an oil economy and much more clout, no power or combination of powers will succeed in forcing the APNU+AFC to leave office, once ensconced. In fact, APNU+AFC will ensure that in future there would be no need for the untidy scramble to fix the election results during the public counting process. The secret systems in place and executed during the elections, were incompetently calculated and inadequate to produce a pre-determined outcome in APNU+AFC’s favour. Hence the public, belated and hasty efforts to rig the results and, upon their failure, the forcing of an extended recount process to give time to devise additional schemes which also failed, but which could have succeeded had it not been for a vigilant judiciary and external pressures.
The increasing of penalties alone, as proposed by the Government, will not help in any significant way. The electoral malpractices have shown that election officials were determined and either believed that they would be protected or, if not, would have been prepared to abide by the consequences. Guyana is so deeply, politically ethnicized that an electoral loss, particularly for a large minority, is as an exclusion from life giving resources. An electoral loss is perceived as ethnic degradation, followed by a sense marginalization, exploited by political actors and ethnic entrepreneurs, whether that marginalization takes place or not. So deep is the hurt and anguish that election officials who are partisan to APNU+AFC are not going to be intimidated by greater legal penalties, including peremptory imprisonment.
A political solution is the only permanent remedy to election rigging and the political insecurities in Guyana. The failure of APNU+AFC to implement its 2015 manifesto proposals has resulted in the loss of a once in a century opportunity and has relieved the pressure on the PPP. Where Guyana goes from here politically, no one knows. No doubt the PPP would be hoping that the petroleum goodies will relieve the ethnic pressures and build its popularity. Only time will tell. But goodies in our history since the 1960s have not weakened ethnic cleavages on either side and are not likely to do so in the future.
The most important way to reduce the possibility of election rigging is to implement a mixed system of elections which allows voting by first past the post with a number of top up seats to award to political parties in order to address the issue of disproportionality. The Constitution Reform Commission made this proposal in 1999-2001. The PPP and PNCR discussed its implementation for the 2001 elections but because of the lack of time there was no opportunity to agree to the demarcation of constituencies and other necessary measures. They therefore agreed that there should be ten constituencies based on the regional boundaries and after the elections efforts would be made to have discussions. None ever took place.
The electoral list is 500,000 in round figures. The Constitution as it stands allows for half the seats to be contested in constituencies. Assuming half to be 33, each constituency would have approximately 15,000 votes. Reducing the number of constituencies from the 10 regions to 33, eliminating the centralized counting systems and reporting duties by returning officers and other minor reforms, will reduce, if not eliminate the possibility of the type of rigging efforts that took place earlier this year.
There has already been political agreement on this matter since 2001. But there is no certainty that in the current heated atmosphere which is likely to continue for some time, that any civil discourse, much less agreement, is likely. However, the Government does not need to rely on the Opposition for these changes. The Constitution already provides the framework. All that is needed is to amend the Representation of the People Act for which the Government has the votes. In the last elections held under first past the post in 1964, then British Guiana was divided into 32 constituencies. The division of Guyana into a similar number of constituencies now, with necessary adjustment of boundaries (the entire Corentyne, Region 6, used to be one constituency so as to disadvantage the PPP), should not incur disputes.
This long-awaited reform, agreed to be both political parties in the past, and supported by most observers, is one of the most effective ways to eliminate elections skullduggery.