The intensified struggle for electoral reforms in Guyana (1990-1992)

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The PCD alliance

Ever since the PPP launched its proposals in 1977 for a National Patriotic Front, many attempts were made to unite all the anti-PNC forces committed to the on-going struggle for democracy in Guyana. A temporary alliance was formed during the period of the referendum in 1978, but it was not until after the fraudulent December 1985 elections that a longer-lasting alliance in the form of the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) was organised by the PPP and five of the six small opposition parties which contested the elections - the Working People's Alliance (WPA), the Democratic Labour Movement (DLM), and the National Democratic Front (NDF), and the People's Democratic Movement (PDM).

The PCD at first limited its activities to the struggle for free and fair elections and human rights. It not only brought unity of action to the opposition parties but stimulated other sections of the population to openly join their voices to the campaign for democracy.

Later, the alliance decided to transform itself into an electoral front with a consensus presidential candidate and a joint slate of candidates to contest elections due by March 1991. However, the parties could not agree on a consensus presidential candidate and also disagreed on the proportion each of the parties would have on the joint slate for election to the National Assembly.

Refusal by Hoyte to allow electoral reform

After the 1985 elections, the PNC Government headed by President Desmond Hoyte immediately attempted to restructure the country's economy which was in total shambles. He negotiated an economic recovery plan with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which enabled the Government to acquire new loans in exchange for free-market reforms and the reversal of the nationalisation policies pursued up to around 1987. At the same time, Hoyte ditched his administration's "cooperative socialism" and began to embrace market-oriented policies and ideas.

However, Hoyte and the PNC were not prepared to allow free and fair elections and stubbornly refused to allow electoral reforms championed by the PCD alliance. The alliance, in order to promote its demands and to garner international support, lobbied western governments, international organisations, and influential politicians in the USA, Canada, Caricom and the UK in the effort to pressure the PNC administration to implement reforms for free and fair elections. PPP leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, also made important visits to Washington, London, Toronto and several Caricom capitals to lobby support for electoral demands at home

The major reforms the PCD demanded included the creation of a totally independent Elections Commission with authority over all aspects of the electoral process, the counting of ballots at polling places, restricting the military to barracks on election day, and the presence of international observers. Prior to 1990, Hoyte had persisted in rejecting the call for foreign observers by describing them as interferers and meddlers.

US pressures

In December 1989, Jagan, in a letter to US President George Bush, pleaded for the US to send a strong signal that it wanted free and fair election in Guyana. Bush had earlier expressed the hope that the 1990s would be a "decade of democracy" and in his message to Hoyte on Guyana's Republic Day on 23 February 1990, he expressed hopes that the upcoming elections would be held according to democratic norms. This message was repeated by the US State Department, and soon after eight Democratic Members of Congress and six Senators wrote separately to Secretary of State James Baker requesting that US aid to Guyana be tied to free and fair elections.

By that time, clear signals started to emerge from within bodies like the US State Department that financial assistance to Guyana was being linked to the certification of the electoral process. In this respect, the Appropriations Committee of the US House of Representatives subsequently announced in September 1990 that it had "temporarily withheld" about US$600,000 of proposed economic assistance to Guyana. The objective of this action was "to press the Desmond Hoyte government in Georgetown to make substantial changes in the country's electoral systems."

A significant factor in the Congressional actions was the role played by Senator Edward Kennedy who reminded his colleagues of the history of rigged elections in Guyana under the PNC. In addition, the members of Congress were aware of the statement in early 1990 by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., historian and adviser to President John Kennedy, that US policy towards Guyana in the early 1960s was unjust, and that a "great injustice was done to Cheddi Jagan" during that period.

Invitation to the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government

In the wake of far-reaching democratic changes the world over, the pro-democracy movement in Guyana started to find more sympathetic ears in very important centres in other countries. This interaction started to create its own dynamics. Foreign support encouraged local struggles and growing local struggles prompted greater pressures from foreign governments. Increased pressures from foreign aid donors also forced the Hoyte administration to make significant concessions on electoral matters.

As domestic and international pressure for these reforms built up, Hoyte agreed to some minor changes by handing back some powers to the Elections Commission to take control of the election machinery - control previously placed in the hands of the Minister of Home Affairs. Then in July 1990, he invited the Commonwealth Secretariat to send a delegation to observe the forthcoming elections. But since the PCD was not certain that the Commonwealth mission would be totally impartial since the Guyana Government was one of its members, the alliance said that the Carter Center should also be invited.

With Hoyte showing no interest in inviting the Carter Center to observe the elections, PPP leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan wrote to former US President Jimmy Carter, the chairman of the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government, an informal non-governmental group composed of 21 leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere, to signal its interest in observing Guyana's elections. In July 1990, Jagan met with Dr. Robert Pastor, Executive Secretary of the Council, at the Carter Center in Atlanta and requested the Council to send observers. But Pastor informed him that the Council might agree only if it received invitations from all major parties.

In Guyana itself, pressures were mounting for the holding of free and fair elections. In July 1990, more than 8,000 PPP supporters on the Essequibo Coast carried out a march for this demand. In defiance of armed police sent to block them, they marched from two directions and converged at Anna Regina where they were addressed by leaders of the party. Similar PPP-organised marches followed on the Corentyne, West Berbice, Canje and West Demerara, with thousands of people marching long distances, rallying support for the party, and demonstrating their will to struggle for democracy.

Around the same time, the United States Government, which had offered to advise on providing assistance to the Elections Commission, contracted the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to provide the service. A two-member team from IFES arrived in Guyana on 8 October 1990 and immediately met with officials of the Commission who requested assistance in the form of four-wheel-drive vehicles, river transport, office furniture and stationery. The service of IFES formed part of an assistance package of US$693,000 from the US Government to the Elections Commission to help it discharge its functions of supervising the elections.

Jimmy Carter's visit to Guyana

Following Jagan's visit to Atlanta, the opposition parties sent invitations to the Council. On 27 September 1990, President Hoyte, after consultations with Jagan, also invited the Council (invariably referred to as the Carter Center) to send a delegation to Guyana. Eventually on 13-14 October 1990, Carter led a small delegation to Guyana to examine the electoral conditions and determine whether his organisation should observe the electoral process. The delegation held separate meetings with Hoyte and Jagan and also with members of the Elections Commission.

Just two days before Carter arrived, Hoyte had declared that counting of votes at the place of poll was a "logistical nightmare" and refused to give it any consideration. But after Carter's lengthy discussions with Hoyte, the Guyanese President, despite his previous adamant opposition, finally agreed to a preliminary counting of ballots at the polling places and to a new house-to-house registration of voters to replace the existing list. No doubt, Hoyte's change of position resulted from both internal and external political pressures exerted on him.

With these agreements in place, the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government agreed to observe the forthcoming elections. And soon after, the Carter Center established an office in Georgetown to monitor preparations for the elections.

The flawed voters' list

At that period, the two biggest problems cantered on the need for a new voters' list since the current one was so much riddled with inaccuracies that even the PNC objected to it; and the demand by the opposition for the counting of votes at the polling station immediately after the end of the voting exercise.

With respect to the voters' list prepared by the Chief Registration Officer, Ronald Jacobs, several errors were obvious. It included numerous names of deceased persons; many persons whose names were included on lists up to April 1990 found their names were deleted; many others whose names were added in 1989 for the municipal elections found that their names did not reappear; the lot numbers of residences of large numbers of voters were omitted; and the names of voters born in the month of December were expunged from the list.

Faced with this situation, Hoyte on the evening of 12 October 1990, in a nation-wide radio broadcast, said he would not announce a date for election until a satisfactory voters' list was compiled. He agreed that the errors on the current list were too many, too serious and too pervasive. He added that the government would amend existing legislation or promulgate new ones to facilitate any corrective measures in compiling a new preliminary voters' list.

But it was apparent that some efforts were made on the part of the government to frustrate the spirit of the agreements. The bill to provide for new house-to-house registration was not presented to the National Assembly until 28 December 1990 and actual registration did not commence until 18 February 1991.

Initially, the PNC government opposed the appointment of opposition agents ("scrutineers") to observe the registration process. But after reluctantly conceding, it created numerous obstacles to prevent them from performing their duties: opposition agents would not be paid; they could not enter the premises of potential voters; an alternate to an agent in case of illness, urgent business, etc., was disallowed; and appointments and replacements of agents had to be done in Georgetown. Further, during the three-month registration exercise, there was no proper coordination between the registration officers and the opposition agents since many of the officers could not be found while others were generally uncooperative.

New Elections Commission

During the Carter mission, the discussions failed to resolve the matter regarding the impartiality of the three-member Elections Commission and particularly its Chairman, Sir Harry Bollers. The PCD consistently demanded the removal of Bollers but Hoyte firmly opposed this.

A second mission of the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government, led by Prime Minister George Price of Belize and Dr. Robert Pastor, visited Guyana in March and April 1991 and addressed the question of the removal of Bollers with President Hoyte. Soon after, Hoyte announced the resignation of Bollers and agreed on the restructuring of the Elections Commission which would be expanded to include five members. The PNC and the opposition were to name two members each, while the new Chairman was to be selected by President Hoyte from a list proposed by the Leader of the Opposition. Subsequently, Rudy Collins, a former Ambassador to Venezuela, was chosen as the new Chairman of the Elections Commission.

At its press conference at the conclusion of the mission, the team leader suggested that in order to remove any doubts, both Hoyte and the new Chairman should make it very clear that the Elections Commission was in charge of the entire election machinery.

All this time, the Commissioner of National Registration, Ronald Jacobs, assured the Council's delegation that the preliminary voters' list would be ready for distribution to all parties by 1 July. He also guaranteed that party polling agents would have complete access to polling places and that a list of all presiding officers appointed for polling stations would be reviewed by the Elections Commission. The review was necessary since the opposition parties claimed that most of the presiding officers appointed were political activists of the ruling PNC.

More problems with voters' list

Meanwhile, the PPP was very much concerned over what it termed the "foot-dragging" in the registration process. In protest, it resigned from the National Assembly and the regional Democratic Councils on 2 April 1991, particularly after it learned that the PNC regime was planning to extend its term of office beyond 2 May, the constitutional limit to its tenure in government. In the end, the regime extended its life for two additional periods of two months each, up to 30 September 1991.

The election was now expected to be held in December 1991. By May 1991, the voter registration exercise was completed but the preparation of the voters' list experienced numerous computer and administrative problems. Finally on 28 September 1991, two days before Parliament was due to come to an end, Collins announced that the list was completed. Even though it was obvious that the list was seriously flawed, Hoyte proceeded to dissolve Parliament on 30 September 1991 and announced the holding of elections within 90 days, or by 28 December 1991.

But serious objections were immediately raised over the accuracy of the preliminary voters' list. Names of dead persons were still included, thousands of names were missing while many thousands more showed no home addresses. A Guyanese civic group, the Electoral Assistance Bureau, also checked the list and its analysis reported a very high rate of errors.

The PCD alliance rejected the list and accused Jacobs and his team of rigging it in favour of the PNC. However, Election Commission Chairman Rudy Collins agreed that there were errors in the list but he felt they could be corrected easily to ensure the holding of the election in December. Despite this, even Hoyte agreed that the list was defective but would go along with any decision taken by Collins.

In late October, the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government sent a delegation to Guyana, led by former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo and Dr. Robert Pastor, to assess whether existing electoral conditions would allow for a free and fair election in December 1991. After examining the situation, this delegation felt that the voters' list could not be corrected in time for a December election.

The delegation reported that "our assessment of the list is that it is seriously flawed by one-third or more. The flaws are of a magnitude beyond the capability of the names and objections process to handle in the time permitted." A computer expert in the delegation, Harry Neufeld, estimated that the 130,000 names which were left off the list could not be included by mid-November, 1991, the deadline for claims and objections.

Carter immediately wrote to Collins, stating that the political parties needed to receive a final copy of the voters' list at least three weeks before the election to determine its accuracy. Carter added that the elections should be postponed to allow enough time to correct the list; if this could not be done, he said the Council would not observe the elections. The American and British governments also urged Hoyte to postpone the elections.

Elections postponed

Nevertheless, Hoyte, after being advised by the Collins that the voters' list would be corrected in due time, announced in mid-November that elections would be held on 16 December. By this time, the PCD alliance had fallen apart over differences on a consensus presidential candidate and a common parliamentary slate. In addition, some of the smaller parties such as the WPA were not prepared for the elections and decided to boycott the process. The PPP, however, decided to participate; it had already formed an alliance with a "Civic" component and had chosen Jagan as its presidential candidate and Sam Hinds as his running mate.

Faced with demands to postpone the elections and to clean up the voters' list, Hoyte insisted that he would proceed with the planned December elections. He immediately sent a high-powered Ministerial mission to the United States of America and Britain to champion this view. But the mission was told frankly by those governments that free and fair elections could not be held with the flawed list. Meanwhile, Hoyte announced to the Guyanese people that since no state of emergency existed - and that even if one did - a reconvened Parliament could not postpone the elections.

But within a few days of Hoyte's announcement of the election date, Collins issued a new report that the final voters' list would not be ready for the December elections. As a result, Hoyte postponed the elections and recalled Parliament to enact new legislation to allow for elections to be held in 1992. Significantly, the PNC used the reconvened Parliament to also deal with a wide range of matters not limited to electoral issues.

Meanwhile, the opposition political parties demanded the removal of the Chief Registration Officer, Ronald Jacobs, whom they accused of gross incompetence in the preparation of the voters' list. The PNC strongly opposed this demand, but Jacobs was eventually removed after Hoyte himself expressed dissatisfaction with the list.

Correcting the list

With enough time now at hand, the UN Development Program (UNDP) provided technical advisers and assistance to correct the list. In April 1992, the UNDP in conjunction with the Election Commission conducted a test to detect whether the new list was padded with names of deceased or non-existent persons. This was done by selecting a sample of names and trying to locate them. The results showed that the "not found" rate was only 4.4 percent.

The Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government again sent a delegation to Guyana on 27-31 July 1992 to examine the preparations for the elections. While the delegation found that all the major parties accepted the new voters' list, it reported that many logistical matters remained unresolved and that there were widespread suspicions that the government would never allow a free election and would somehow rig the elections in its favour - a situation which would lead to racial violence. In the light of this, the delegation publicly urged all Guyanese, including the private sector and other non-governmental actors, to assist the Commission in organising a public information campaign to allay any fears among the population.

On 10 August 1992, Collins informed Hoyte that the final voters' list was completed. As a result, he dissolved Parliament on 29 August and announced that elections would be held on 5 October.

25 March 2007