By Chaitram Aklu
“The opportunity for citizens to choose who represents them in government represents everything that a democracy aspires to be.” – Findlaw.
The Republic of Guyana, the only Anglophone nation in South America and the newest oil producing country in the world has just qualified for entry into the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records – for taking the longest time to declare a national election result – 154 days. It happened when senior election officials, members of the incumbent ruling Coalition party, in a most transparent manner attempted to substitute fraudulent figures during the vote count, to keep their party in office.
National and local elections were held on March 2, 2020, long overdue after a no confidence vote in the 65 seat national parliament toppled the government in December 2018. The incumbent ruling Coalition party, A Party of National Unity (APNU) + the Alliance for Change (AFC) taken by surprise took the matter to court in a desperate attempt to remain in power at all cost. This was the first of several litigations it initiated until July 30, 2020.
To get a clear understanding of the deliberate attempt to create confusion that followed the no confidence vote and the attempt to derail democracy in the country, it is necessary to go back to 2011. The election that year was contested by the Peoples Progressive Party – Civic (PPP-C) which won the election but formed a minority government with 32 seats, the APNU which won 26 seats, and the AFC the smaller opposition party which won 7 seats. Guyana’s election laws permits parties to coalesce only before an election. As a minority government, the PPP-C was most vulnerable because of the strong opposition from the two opposition parties which together had a majority – 33 seats.
In 2015, before the next scheduled election date, the PPP-C was threatened with a no confidence vote in the Parliament and rather than face the no confidence vote, the then President Donald Ramotar opted to prorogue parliament and set a date for elections.
The PPP-C had full confidence that it could not be defeated. But the APNU and the AFC saw an opportunity and formed a Coalition under the name APNU + AFC. The Coalition was led by David Granger, a retired military officer, turned politician who was also the leader of the APNU. The strategy worked and although the Coalition gained the same total number of seats as in 2011(33), it was able to form the government, with Granger becoming the President. There was no dispute that 33 was the majority.
The PPP-C in office continuously for 23 years had become somewhat complacent. There were allegations of too many government officials getting rich and they had become very arrogant when dealing with the very voters that elected them. Still it lost the elections by less than 5 000 votes. It vacated office without incident.
It is interesting to note that in the 2015-2018 Parliament the APNU+AFC Coalition also had only a one seat majority (33 seats to the PPP-C 32 seats). It was also a clear indication that voters did not change affiliation as the PPP actually gained the same number of seats as in 2011 (32).
On assuming office, the Coalition instead of working to increase its base failed to even return to the electorate in the towns and villages to thank their supporters and also failed to deliver on promises. Meanwhile the PPP-C, led by its General Secretary and a former President, Dr. Bharat Jagdeo went to work to regain the confidence of the electorate. In addition many supporters abandoned the Coalition, especially the AFC. Before 2011 many voters had seen the AFC as a third force that would serve as a balance of power on the larger entrenched PPP-C and APNU parties, and had switched to the AFC. This is demonstrated by the AFC winning 7 seats in the 2011 elections – a feat that no new third party had ever accomplished before.
When the AFC coalesced with the APNU, those supporters felt betrayed and used their vote to show their disappointment in the 2018 local government elections which the parties contested separately. The AFC won only 4 percent of the total vote which reduced its bargaining strength with the APNU in run up to the 2020 general elections. In fact, the new APNU/AFC agreement precluded the AFC prime minister from even acting as President or assuming the office should the APNU President vacate for whatever reason. Further, disappointment began to surface, among members of the AFC which in the new 2020 agreement, was given a 70:30 (APNU: AFC) share of the seats in the parliament – down from 60:40. One thing that was noticeable was that AFC MPs who were assigned ministerial positions after the 2015 elections had an APNU junior minister appointed to their ministries. Several supporters, including overseas supporters, abandoned the AFC Party.
Upon taking control of the government in 2015, the Coalition moved swiftly to close the economically unfeasible sugar industry without a plan for the laid off 7 000 plus workers. The workers were basically left jobless.
In December 2018, citing that the Coalition had failed to keep its promise and the suffering of the people, especially the laid off sugar workers, the Opposition (PPP-C) Leader brought a no confidence motion, supported by one AFC Coalition MP in the Parliament (supposedly unplanned), effectively toppling the Coalition. Taken by total surprise, the Coalition took the matter through the local courts and to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the highest and final court for Guyana and a few other Caribbean countries, asking the court to basically decide that 34 NOT 33 is the majority in the 65 member Parliament. Since the no confidence vote passed with 33 votes it was invalid! The CCJ disagreed and instructed that Parliament be prorogued and a date set for elections. The date for the election was then set for March 2, 2020.
More court challenges followed which were resolved and the elections were held as scheduled. “Elections day proceeded smoothly and efficiently. All political parties, plus local and international observers stated that the voting process, plus the counting of votes at polling stations, were free, fair and credible.” according to observer teams from the U.S. based Carter Center, Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
The coalition was as confident in its belief that it had the support of the majority of the electorate just as the PPP-C had in 2015 election, when it lost by less than 5 000 votes. It failed to take seriously how weak the AFC had become (as proved by the 2018 local government elections). The PPP-C actually gained votes in Region 4, (The country is divided into 10 Regions) the most densely populated region of the country that includes Georgetown, the capital – traditionally an APNU stronghold and where the AFC also drew much of its support in the 2011 elections.
The Coalition became aware of its defeat in the middle of the Region 4 tabulation of the statements of poll for the Region the last of the 10 Regions to be tabulated. As it became clear that the coalition had failed to garner the number of votes that would give it an overall majority, the elections officer for the region took it upon himself to stop tabulating the statements of poll and attempted to present numbers that no one else present was aware of and declared the Coalition the winner of the region. He gave the APNU+AFC 19,116 more votes than were actually cast for that party’s list thereby giving the coalition an overall majority of the total votes in the entire country.
The blatant attempt at fraud was roundly condemned by the dozens of official observers representing both local and international organizations and foreign ambassadors. Bruce Golding the OAS Chief Observer who witnessed the fraudulent act, later stated: “I have never seen such a transparent effort to alter the results of an election. — You know it takes an extraordinarily courageous mind to present fictitious numbers when such a sturdy paper trail exists.” Condemnation from over 100 countries and international organizations immediately followed.
Nevertheless the Chief Elections Officer (CEO) still proceeded to use the fraudulent numbers to submit his report to the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), declaring the Coalition the winner. International condemnation followed from organizations and over 100 countries.
A recount for Region 4 was demanded and litigation again followed. Meanwhile the Coalition Leader, President Granger, bowing to international pressure, then insisted that a recount must be done for all of the votes for all 10 Regions. The opposition accepted in an agreement brokered by a team of Prime ministers from CARICOM countries. In the case of Ulita Moore v. GECOM et al, Moore asked the court to rule that the GECOM could not order a recount of votes based on an agreement between the President and Leader of the Opposition, brokered by Prime ministers from CARICOM. It would be a violation of the Constitution. The Court of Appeal ruled in Moore’s favor and it was appealed to the Apex Court, the CCJ which upheld the appeal ruling that the recount was constitutional as long as it was not supervised by CARICOM.
Another case was filed in the Court of Appeal, Eslyn David v. CEO et al. The petitioner asked to court to interpret the term “more votes cast” to mean “more valid votes cast,” asking the court to invalidate the recount votes. It was appealed to the CCJ which threw out the case, ruling that the recount votes was constitutional and must be used in the declaration and ordered the CEO to obey the GECOM’s instructions to prepare results based on recount. Had the CCJ dismissed the appeal, the CEO would have discarded 115,844 valid votes and declare the APNU + AFC the winner.
The recount (began on March 6 and lasted 34 days) observed by a 3-member CARICOM appointed team and other local and foreign observers confirmed the original statements of poll for each polling district. In defiance of the CCJ, and instructions from the GECOM Chairperson, the CEO decided to disqualify 115,844 votes (of the 460 352 total valid votes) declaring them invalid and giving the Coalition a majority with a bigger lead than in his first report to the Commission. He claimed that he had removed the invalid votes cast by deceased and migrated voters! This was a most spurious attempt to cover up, as all votes were counted at the places of poll where spoiled ballots were not counted votes. The spoiled ballots were noted as such on the statements of poll.
A final litigation (Misenga Jones v. GECOM) petitioned the Guyana Court of Appeal to command the GECOM to use a report submitted by CEO which contained the fraudulent Region 4 figures from the Returning Officer. It ended with the Court of Appeal unanimously dismissing the case on July 30, and ruled that the recount results certified by CARICOM must be used to declare the winner of the elections.
Finally on August 2, 154 days after the March 2 elections, the day after Emancipation Day celebrating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and a national holiday in Guyana, the CEO complied with the GECOM Chairperson’s order and submitted the official recount results to the Commission. The declaration showed that a total of 233 336 votes (50.69 percent) were cast for the PPP-C, led by Irfaan Ali, with an allocation of 33 seats, making it the winner; 217 920 votes (47.34 percent) were cast for the incumbent APNU/AFC Coalition with an allocation of 31 seats – down from 33 seats in 2011. Three new small parties, referred jointly as the joiner parties were allocated one seat. The new President was sworn in on the same day.
Defeat may be hard to accept for the Coalition’s major partner – the APNU, which has never won a free and fair election when it contested an election as a single party. On a social media post on Monday August 3, 2020, Volda Lawrence, the PNC (a party in the APNU) Chairperson and former Health Minister told supporters, “We know that the coalition won this elections —won this elections on valid votes (sic)… I am asking you not to be sidetracked by the many perpetrators of evil out there.”
Its leaders may also want to take the counsel of a true statesman, Albert Gore (a two-time U.S. Presidential Candidate) who accepted the verdict of the U.S Court in Bush v. Gore, (2000) without rancor “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy.”
The elections are over and were certified as free and fair. The Guyanese people displayed remarkable patience, calm, peacefulness but strong resolve to make their vote count and preserve their democracy. Prepare for the next one.