October 5 will forever be remembered in the history of Guyana as the date when a short-lived democracy was restored. Our freedom was obtained on May 26, 1966. The period of formal democracy lasted from 1966, until 1968 when it was crushed by rigged elections.
The rigging of the 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 elections have been fully documented elsewhere. But the entire gamut of manipulative techniques was employed. Laws were passed that removed all but the formal powers of the Elections Commission and handed over the management of the elections to the Chief Elections Office. The free press was destroyed and Parliament unrepresentative. But opposition to the rigging of elections never subsided.
(Speech to New York Diaspora 8th October, 2017)
October 5 will forever be remembered in the history of Guyana as the date when a short-lived democracy was restored. Our freedom was obtained on May 26, 1966, after a ‘fiddled constitutional arrangement,’ as described by Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the UK, when he was Opposition Leader. The constitutional arrangement was fiddled for the 1964 elections by the imposition of proportional representation, but there was no claim that the elections held in 1964 had been rigged. Nor was there any such claim in relation to the previous elections held in 1961, 1957 and 1953, all won by the PPP. The period of formal democracy lasted from 1966, the year of Independence, until 1968 when it was crushed, when the elections were first rigged.
The rigging of the 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 elections have been fully documented elsewhere and there is no need for me to set out the details. But I should remind you that the entire gamut of manipulative techniques was employed. Among them were overseas voting by non-existent persons, padded electoral lists in Guyana by non-existent and deceased persons, multiple voting, proxy voting, postal voting and ballot box stuffing. This was accomplished by removing the bottoms of the wooden boxes which were nailed in, removing the genuine ballots, stuffing the boxes with false ballots and nailing in the bottoms of the boxes. After the 1992 elections the PPP was told this by several persons who had participated in these events.
The first elections under universal adult suffrage was held in British Guiana on April 27, 1953. It was won by the Peoples’ Progressive Party which had been formed in 1950 during an era of anti-colonial upsurge in the British Empire, particularly in South Africa, Malaya and Kenya. Cheddi Jagan had expressed solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles in these countries in his speech at the opening of the Legislative Assembly on June 17, 1953. Many at that time, and for the rest of his political career, would have preferred that he remain silent about the foreign domination and oppressed.
The government lasted until October 9, 1953, when the constitution was suspended and the government removed from office. The historical background and secret communications surrounding this traumatic event has been well researched and publicised. The Government held office at the sufferance of the British Government whose local representatives were merely watchful and cautious. But anti-communist agitation by leaders wedded to colonial privileges, perfidiously exploiting the hysterical atmosphere created by the Cold War, one of whose architects, Winston Churchill, was the Prime MInister, resulted in the suspension of the Constitution. History has already delivered its judgment on the events of 1953 and the leaders of the PPP, but profound and relevant lessons remain for the Guyanese people.
For more than twenty years the task of choosing a chairperson of the Elections Commission (GECOM) was without controversy. With the resignation of Dr. Steve Surujballi the President invited the Leader of the Opposition to submit a list of six, not unacceptable, names under article 161 of the constitution, which was done in December, 2016. The article requires the chair to be a judge, a former judge or a person qualified to be a judge (the “judge category”) or a fit and proper person. The President rejected the list in its entirety. He first suggested that only a person in the ‘judge category’ could be appointed but later amended that to indicate that preference must be given to the ‘judge’ category. The President also stated that all the names on the list must be acceptable and if one is not, he is entitled to reject the entire list.
At the invitation of the President, the Leader of the Opposition submitted a second list. This was also rejected by the President. The Leader of the Opposition continued the policy of engagement and indicated that he will submit a third list. However, by that time, Mr. Marcel Gaskin, of a new organization called RISE, formed to promote constitutional reform, brought legal-constitutional proceedings seeking answers to four questions. These were: whether the list must include a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge; whether the President must state reasons for deeming each of the six names unacceptable; whether the President is obliged to select a person unless he has decided that the persons are unacceptable; whether one person being unacceptable renders the whole list unacceptable. The Guyana Bar Association, entered a case as amicus curiae (a friend of the court) and made submissions. The case was heard before Chief Justice (ag) George-Wiltshire, who announced an oral decision on July 17. The 33-page written decision became available last week.
The drive for ethnic dominance is an unavoidable consequence of our social history. It manifests itself in numerous ways and appears in discourses relating to social and economic policy. More importantly and fundamentally, it appears in political competition. Ideas of ethnic dominance have always shaped our society, and politics could not have escaped it even if it had tried. Our main political parties understand this reality but have each constructed an historical narrative that tells an alternative story. The narratives have subsisted together with and have had a parallel trajectory with the drive for ethnic dominance.
Even the youthful leaders who formed the early political movement, the Political Affairs Committee of 1947 and the Peoples Progressive Party in 1950, did so with the understanding that ethnic unity was a vital pre-requisite. The split of the PPP in 1955, although overtly between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ were led by an African Guyanese, Burnham, the ‘moderate’ and the walkout was against the Indian Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, the ‘extremist,’ resulting from a demand made by Burnham for ‘leader or nothing.’ But within a short time the split inevitably developed into ethnic dimensions. The ethnic violence of the 1960s and two decades of authoritarian rule have together ensured its rigidity and sharpened its significance as a factor in Guyana’s politics unlike, say, Trinidad and Tobago, and have brought home the need to create political and constitutional structures that would undermine its political potency.