The rigged 1985 elections in Guyana

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Forbes Burnham, President of Guyana and leader of the PNC, died in August 1985 and was succeeded to those positions by Desmond Hoyte. General elections were set for 9 December 1985 and on 4 November 1985 Hoyte agreed to some long fought for demands by the opposition parties to abolish the overseas vote and cut back on proxy voting - two of the instruments used to rig elections since 1968. In making his "concessions", he boasted that he was cutting the ground from under the PPP which would no longer have any credible base to complain about "rigged" elections.

Impediments to free and fair elections

But it was clear that the PNC had no intention of allowing free and fair elections. New features were introduced to facilitate vote rigging. Voting by proxy and by the security forces was set aside for 3 December, six days before election day. Also, while voters were expected to vote on election day at places where they were registered, new regulations were introduced to allow voting at places other than where registration took place. This opened the way to multiple voting, especially with the PNC having full control of the election machinery.

Despite his "concessions" Hoyte stubbornly refused to agree for the counting of the votes at the polling places. There was an obvious reason for this refusal. In the elections of 1973 and 1980, the seizure of the ballots by the security forces and the secrecy of their "safekeeping" for many hours before the start of the official count had made it easy for the PNC to rig the election. Thus, counting of ballots at the place of poll immediately after the end of polling could not be accommodated.

This demand to ensure a fair count had been made since the rigged 1968 elections. It was included in the list of electoral reforms in a letter from People's Progressive Party (PPP) leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan of 26 February 1985 to Hoyte, who was Prime Minister at that time, and in a subsequent joint letter of 7 November 1985 to the Chairman of the Elections Commission, Sir Harry Bollers, from Dr. Jagan and Eusi Kwayana of the Working People's Alliance (WPA). Other opposition parties also made the same demand.

The joint letter also questioned the appointment of Roy Hammond as Chief Elections Officer by the Government without the knowledge of the Elections Commission. Dr. Jagan, in a separate letter to Bollers, further questioned him on the selection and appointments of Hammond and other election officers without the Elections Commission having a supervisory role in the process.

With regard to the counting at the place of poll, Hoyte, first as Prime Minister and later as President, dismissed the proposal as a "red herring and an irrelevance" and "something that is logistically difficult and unacceptable." As an excuse, he declared that such a procedure would lead to three different counts - count at place of poll, at regional level and national level - and thus cause an interminable delay in the determination of the election results.

In another letter to Bollers on 13 November 1985, Dr. Jagan requested that the ballot boxes be kept at all times from the close of polling to the end of counting in the view of the agents of the opposition parties. With this in mind, he asked for opposition polling agents to accompany the ballot boxes to the counting centres where the boxes must remain in their presence.

Dr. Jagan also asked that these directives should be given to the Chief Elections Officer and all other electoral officers and publicised in the press and radio. In addition, he asked the Chairman to request President Hoyte, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, to instruct the GDF and police "to permit opposition parties' polling agents to accompany ballot boxes, and counting agents and duly appointed candidates to have access to the counting centres, and particularly to all areas in which ballot boxes are and may be kept at all times, both before and during the counting of ballots."

Earlier, Major General Norman McLean, the head of the security forces, had stated that the army had a "constitutional responsibility" to protect the ballot boxes and, thus, would not stay in barracks on election day. He saw his soldiers having a "geometric loyalty" to the PNC and his "comrade leader" Hoyte.

Dr. Jagan subsequently wrote to the President on these very matters he raised with Bollers, but in a response through his political adviser, Hoyte, rather than dealing with the issues, accused the PPP leaders of planning violence during the election campaign period. This was obviously a PNC tactic to allow army intervention in the election and to sidetrack Dr. Jagan's proposals to the Chairman of the Elections Commission. In the end, the Elections Commission lukewarmly agreed to issue orders that polling agents could accompany ballot boxes.

Subversion of the electoral process

The ruling PNC deliberately subverted the powers of the Elections Commission. As a result, electoral authority was divided between the Government and the Commission with the Chief Elections Officer, Roy Hammond, actually taking instructions from the Minister of Home Affairs rather than the Elections Commission.

There were deliberate actions by the Government to frustrate the opposition parties. Neither the voters' lists for the security forces nor the list of proxies were ever supplied to opposition parties. This made it impossible for opposition monitors to determine whether multiple voting by members of the security forces occurred. Further, the lists of polling places for the security forces were given to opposition parties only at 3.30 p.m. on December 2, the day before polling. As a result, it was impossible to assign polling agents particularly for the hinterland areas. Nevertheless, the PPP managed to appoint polling agents for only 10 out of the 25 polling places.

A few months earlier, Jeffrey Thomas, the Minister of Home Affairs, had refused to allow opposition scrutineers to work alongside the official enumerators in the preparation of the national register. He also ordered that the birth date of persons, especially between the ages of 18 to 25, must not be placed on the preliminary list of voters. The inclusion of birth dates was intended to safeguard against the padding of the voters lists with underage persons.

The padding was concentrated this time not so much in the preliminary voters' list but in the supplementary lists, which amounted to approximately 44,000 names. The entire supplementary lists had been promised by Hammond to the PPP about a week before elections day, but they were never handed over. Supplementary lists totalling 17,000 for nine of the ten regions were given to the PPP on December 8, one day before the election. But the supplementary list for Region 4 (including Georgetown, the capital), totalling about 27,000, was not supplied. Thus, opposition parties had no opportunity to check these names for errors.

In response to protests, the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that lists only had to be displayed in such places as the Minister prescribed, and there was no obligation on anyone to send or give a copy to any political party!

Faced with mounting criticisms, the Minister of Home Affairs denied any Governmental interference. In a reply to a group of civic bodies, he rejected their suggestion that the Commission had no real power or authority to supervise the elections as provided by the Constitution. He informed them that "under the Constitution the Commission has overriding powers over all officials concerned in the administrative conduct of the elections and can issue any directions it considers necessary or expedient for the purpose of ensuring impartiality, fairness and compliance with the Constitution or other law."

The Minister was clearly hypocritical since in practice the powers of the Elections Commission were barefacedly usurped by the Minister himself.

The question of keeping the boxes in view up to and throughout the counting of the votes was widely regarded as the crucial test in the election (as in previous ones). At the beginning of December, the Guyana Bar Association, for instance, wrote Bollers urging him to direct presiding officers to allow polling agents to accompany the boxes to the counting centres. The Association also requested an urgent meeting with the Commission to discuss these fundamental electoral issues.

Bollers refused to meet the lawyers, but he did give a directive that polling agents of the parties should be allowed to accompany the boxes. President Hoyte and the Minister of Home Affairs also gave such an assurance.

But the opposition parties remained wary of these pronouncements since they knew the PNC could not win without tampering with the ballot boxes. They felt that if the ruling party would not agree to a count at the place of poll, it was doubtful it would every allow opposition agents to accompany the ballot boxes to the counting centres.

The Government stubbornly refused to demonstrate fair-mindedness and continued to set up obstacles. A further example of this attitude was demonstrated when the PPP asked the Elections Commission to ensure that proper seals be placed over the slots of the ballot boxes and the holes of the padlocks, and for gummed and initialled paper to be wrapped around the boxes. But the Commission bluntly refused to give such instructions to the presiding officers. The result was that ballot boxes, at the end of the voting, were not properly sealed.

The campaign period

Despite the deliberate handicaps placed in the path of the opposition, six opposition parties decided to contest against the PNC. These parties were the PPP, WPA, Democratic Labour Movement (DLM), National Democratic Front (NDF), People's Democratic Movement (PDM) and United Force (UF). Large crowds attended PPP and other opposition rallies but there were no reports of these in the state-owned media. In contrast, the PNC rallies, to which the party used state-owned vehicles to ferry Government workers and their dependents from different parts of the country to make up the audience, received wide coverage in the same media.

A few days before the election, at the public request of the leading Christian Churches, the main opposition parties pledged themselves and their supporters to uphold the principles of non-violence during the elections. The PNC did not respond to the same public appeal.

Refusal to allow international observers

The 1985 election was held at a period when there was a continued decline in the overall economy and when the quality of life had further deteriorated. So upset was the TUC, which was always under the control of the PNC, that it refused to endorse support for the party as it had done since 1964. The PNC realised that it was losing even its traditional support and so it decided very early not to allow international observers and to take full control of the electoral machinery as it did in 1968, 1973 and 1980. Its planned strategy also included the ejection of polling agents and the stuffing of ballot boxes and the seizure by the military and tampering of the ballot boxes.

The PNC had been embarrassed by the findings of international observers in 1980, and it wanted to continue with its propaganda that the opposition parties were poor losers. Criticising Dr. Jagan's demands for a free and fair poll, its campaign manager Robert Corbin stated: "Jagan's action is all part of the PPP's campaign to find excuses for losing."

As a result, the Government refused to allow an international team of observers drawn from the International Commission of Jurists, the Americas Watch and the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group to visit Guyana for the elections.

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers was also prepared to send a team through its North American affiliates, the National Lawyers Guild and the National Conference of Black Lawyers of the United States. But the Government refused to grant visas to this team.

The Caribbean Council of Churches was also not allowed to observe the election. Its Secretary General was vilified and the body was branded as "foreign meddlers" by the PNC.

Election day

The electoral roll stood at 399,304, including 3,256 overseas voters stated as students on scholarships and Government workers stationed abroad. On election day the turnout was exceedingly high in rural areas of PPP strength and lower than normal in Georgetown and other areas where the PNC drew traditional support.

Problems started very early when many presiding officers, all of whom were PNC activists, began to eject opposition polling agents from the polling stations. Armed thugs also assisted in throwing out opposition agents from many polling stations. In numerous cases, the presiding officers also refused to accept the official credentials of these polling agents who were thus refused entry to the polling stations to monitor the voting.

Most of the ejections occurred in the rural opposition strongholds, but a new feature of this election was also the forceful ejection of opposition polling agents at polling places of traditional PNC strength, particularly in the capital Georgetown, and the bauxite mining towns, Linden and Kwakwani. This became necessary as a result of a low turnout of voters in those areas; the restriction on overseas and proxy voting, and the abolition of postal voting; and the difficulty of tampering with ballot boxes in Georgetown because of the concentration of regional and international journalists, a situation which forced the armed forces to adopt a low profile in the capital. On the other hand, the armed forces were very visible and intimidating elsewhere in man handling voters and eventually seizing control of the ballot boxes when the polls closed.

The ejection of the polling agents more than compensated for the restricted overseas and proxy voting and the abolished postal voting. The PNC control of the electoral machinery, including election personnel, facilitated the ruling party in stuffing ballot boxes with votes for dead, emigrated, under age and non-existent persons on the one hand, and in disenfranchising non supporters on the other. By excluding the names from the voters' lists and for various frivolous reasons - names spelt incorrectly, wrong addresses, wrong ID numbers - thousands of voters were denied the right to vote.

It was against this background, including the ejection of opposition polling agents, that PNC gun-wielding thugs unleashed a violent attack on British journalist Anthony Jenkins and Dr. Jagan at Haslington, East Coast Demerara. Dr. Jagan had gone there to investigate why a polling agent had been ejected from the polling place and why a PPP supporter had been refused the right to vote.

The PPP leader had entered the polling station with another PPP candidate, Moses Nagamootoo, and a bodyguard. Immediately, the polling officer went to the window and shouted to some people outside that Dr. Jagan was there to cause disturbance. A group of armed men then rushed into the building, attacked Dr. Jagan, and pushed him down the stairs. The British journalist who was standing on the roadside was then set upon and severely beaten by the thugs. There was one policeman on duty but he did nothing to stop these assaults.

Further violations

The 1985 elections displayed the same patterns of behaviour as in 1973 and 1980. The army was out again in full battle gear, particularly in the rural areas where the PPP had massive support. PNC activists and thugs had unrestricted access to polling stations in urban areas and at some places in the countryside as well. Countless violations, which were ignored by elections officials and the police, occurred in and around the polling stations. These violations ranged from PNC activists entering polling stations and taking ballot books from the officials to be filled in by them outside the polling stations and then stuffed into the ballot boxes, to open and repeated multiple voting by PNC supporters. Objections of opposition agents were studiously ignored by the presiding officers.

And at the end of the polling, as occurred in previous PNC-controlled elections, the boxes were whisked away by fully armed GDF soldiers and supposedly taken to the counting centres where they "vanished" for many hours only to reappear full with rigged ballots in favour of the PNC.

Actually, the 1985 elections were in many ways even worse than those of 1973 and 1980. As the Government itself admitted, there was no threat, real or pretended, to their peaceful progress. As the Ministry of Information "analysis" of the elections which was distributed to Embassies and High Commissions in Guyana and to institutions abroad, but which was not otherwise distributed in Guyana, stated: "The December 1985 campaign was the most peaceful and orderly one that Guyana had witnessed for over three decades."

In spite of the total absence of any threat to the peace - as the Government itself admitted - the PNC's armed forces, from GDF soldiers to its street thugs, came out in full force to help perpetuate the wholesale rigging of the elections.

Opposition polling agents were generally not allowed to perform their duties and to accompany the ballot boxes. Many of them had already been physically ejected from the polling places. Some of them had their lives threatened by armed thugs in the very presence of the presiding officers and the police who did absolutely nothing to intervene. Actually, the presiding officers and police seized the written notes of many of the opposition polling agents. And at the close of the poll, some of these agents were physically assaulted by the military.

Because of the forceful ejection of many opposition polling agents from polling stations, the PPP announced at 5.00 p.m. that it was withdrawing from taking any further part in the elections. The WPA also made a similar announcement. Later that evening, the Ministry of Information, made this tongue-in-the-cheek comment about this decision: "The PPP's decision meant that like the WPA, that party was declining to participate in the crucial exercise of accompanying the ballot boxes to ensure (and confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt) that the ballot boxes reached the central places of count intact. The PPP thus positioned itself in advance to make allegations of fraud to explain its defeat at the polls."

But such comment was not convincing. Despite earlier assurances by Bollers, the President Minister of Home Affairs to allow opposition polling agents to accompany the ballot boxes to the counting centres at the close of the poll, presiding officers frequently refused to allow opposition polling agents to accompany the boxes. And in cases where they were allowed, the security forces holding the boxes forcibly prevented the polling agents to accompany them.

In instances where polling agents were permitted to accompany the ballot boxes, they were ejected at different points. Others were allowed to go to the counting place, but not permitted to keep the ballot boxes in sight until counting commenced. There were also similar experiences by PPP polling and counting agents and candidates in the hinterland areas.

Counting the ballots

Counting agents and candidates were kept away from the places where the boxes were stored for long hours. For example, PPP candidate Isahak Basir of Essequibo, Region 2, was told that he would not be required at the counting place until 11.30 p.m., long after the boxes had arrived at the counting place. And PPP candidate for Region 5, Navin Chandarpal, was removed at gunpoint from the Bygeval Multilateral School where boxes for that region were delivered.

Ballot boxes were also kept out of sight of opposition parties' agents and candidates for long periods before counting began. The first result for Region 2 was announced 24 hours after polling, while the other results were declared two or three days later. The long delays were, no doubt, required for tampering with the ballot boxes.

The ejection of opposition polling agents and the improper sealing of ballot boxes, prepared the way for the tampering with the ballot boxes that occurred. So barefaced was the rigging that the People's Progressive Party was given only 123 votes for Region 1, but its list of candidates and sponsors alone totalled 136! Another opposition party claimed that 220 persons with ID cards sponsored its list of candidates for Region 10, but it got only 62 votes. And the high figure of 95 percent of votes cast for the vast Northwest Region was another statistical impossibility.

It was not until 12 December, three days after the elections, the final results were announced. According to these results, 294,801 or 73.8 percent of the electorate turned out to cast their ballots. Not surprisingly, the PNC once again announced a massive landslide victory with 228,718 or 77.6 percent of the votes cast. The PPP was given 45,926 votes or 15.6 percent, UF 9,810 votes or 3.3 percent, the WPA 4,176 or 1.4 percent and a total of 1.1 percent for all other parties combined. These figures gave the PNC 42 seats in the National Assembly, the PPP 8, the UF 2 and the WPA 1. The PNC picked up 12 additional seats by "winning" all the regional council elections. Hoyte was also re-elected as President as a result of this "landslide".

List of Abuses

Polling agents of opposition political parties in subsequent days presented affidavits of the electoral abuses they witnessed. These included:

(1) There was voting by persons posing as someone else, and multiple voting by the same person.

(2) Partiality by polling officials to PNC supporters was evident.

(3) Opposition polling agents were refused or delayed access to polling stations.

(4) Opposition polling agents were evicted from polls by force.

(5) Some voters were wrongfully turned away from polls, ostensibly on the grounds that their identification card numbers did not match with those on the voters' list; they were told by presiding officers they had "already voted"; or their names could not be found on the list.

(6) Polling agents illegally advised PNC activists of the names of voters who had not yet voted.

(7) Ballots were marked outside polling places, including at PNC offices.

(8) Police failed to prevent or correct violations of law.

(9) Polling agents were not allowed to have voter lists or to take or keep notes.

(10) PNC supporters who were not accredited were allowed in and out of polling places.

(11) Fingers of many PNC supporters were not dipped in "electoral" ink to show that they voted.

(12) Fingers of some PNC supporters were washed after being dipped in ink.

(13) Opposition challenges to improper voters were disallowed by presiding officers at polling places.

(14) Ballot boxes were taken away by GDF soldiers or PNC supporters in violation of law.

(15) The GDF and some presiding officers refused to allow opposition polling agents to accompany ballot boxes to place for counting.

(16) For many hours ballot boxes were not kept in the presence of opposition parties' agents at the counting centres.

(17) Ballots were not counted until as late as 48 hours after the polls closed.

Caricom support for the rigged elections

With the results announced, President Desmond Hoyte pompously declared that the elections were "above hoard and regular." But this "overwhelming victory" was condemned by the opposition political parties, local civic organisations and foreign journalists.

Strong opposition to the electoral arrangements also came from the Bishops of the Catholic and Anglican churches, along with other representatives of trade unions, the Bar Association and the Guyana Human Rights Association. They expressed their disappointment over the way the elections were held and recorded that "the familiar and sordid catalogue of widespread disenfranchisement, multiple voting, ejection of polling agents, threats, intimidation, violence and collusion by police and army personnel characterised the poll. . . ."

The government's response to the widespread charges of electoral fraud was to publish two glossy booklets, obviously targeted for foreign consumption, showing that the elections had been "free and fair". These propaganda booklets were rushed into print so that President Hoyte could distribute them to Caricom leaders attending a hurriedly convened meeting in mid-December on Mustique Island to discuss the elections. These booklets, which were never circulated in Guyana, attributed almost all the criticisms of Guyanese electoral practices to "sour grapes" by Dr. Jagan, totally ignoring the criticisms by international human rights groups and those of the Anglican and Catholic Bishops and other civic bodies in Guyana. They also bragged that the PNC's victory was to a combination of opposition incompetence and PNC brilliance.

Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica had earlier condemned the elections, but apparently at the meeting she and the other leaders decided to accept Hoyte's version that the elections were free and fair. By doing so they certainly reinforced their support for the anti-democratic process imposed on the Guyanese people by the PNC through yet another rigged election.

3 July 2006