It is with trepidation that I venture to write about an issue such as this, which invokes controversies from all sides. To deal with it realistically though, I have to reflect on another contentious aspect of our recent history, which continues to drive fear into the minds of a vast number of people. The results of the 1992 elections alone, ignoring all the other evidence, prove beyond any conceivable doubt that all prior elections in Guyana as an independent nation were rigged. The failure of the PNC to acknowledge that past, and its role in it, has left more than a lingering sense of suspicion in the minds of a large number of people. The suspicion is, that with the PNC once again in power, rigged elections are back on the agenda. Some PNC members, supporters and sympathisers don’t seem to understand this, or if they do, don’t care about it. Rigged elections in the past aggravated ethnic disharmony by creating the feeling in one section of the population that its vote was either being stolen or was worthless. Hence the controversy over employment practices at GECOM. I am not saying anything that is not widely known and accepted, although many would not wish to acknowledge it.
Guyana’s population has had decided preferences in terms of employment. We have always had African Guyanese tending towards employment in the state sector. In the private sector, they are mostly located in administration, rather than as entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding 28 years of PNC rule, during which African Guyanese were encouraged to go into business, followed by 23 years of PPP rule, during which Indian Guyanese were encouraged to seek employment in the state sector and particularly the security services, the essential employment preferences at the time of Independence has remained largely intact today. These employment preferences are rooted mainly in history.
At the event marking the 100th Birth Anniversary of Cheddi Jagan sponsored by the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, former President Bharrat Jagdeo expressed fears that the general elections due in 2020 will be rigged. President Jagdeo cited the circumstances leading up to the appointment of the Chair of the Elections Commission, namely, President Granger’s rejection of three lists of a total of eighteen names, and the President’s choice of Justice James Patterson. President Granger had the authority to appoint a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge, if he rejected the list of the Leader of the Opposition on the ground that the names submitted were not acceptable to him. It was a controversial departure by the President from the formula adopted in 1992, which had subsequently received constitutional imprimatur.
Rigged elections have had a long, known and sordid history in Guyana. Surprisingly, instead of leaving the past behind after the reforms of 1990-1992, it was the PNC that became the accuser, alleging that elections between 1992 and 2006 were rigged. Observers noted that 40 percent average it obtained from 1992 onwards, after the large majorities between 1968 and 1985 had to be explained. The rigging of the elections thereafter was the explanation, justifying the large majorities. But it might have been the symptom of the deeper ethnic malaise that afflicts Guyana, just as the PPP’s claims that the elections of 2011 and 2015, in which it received substantially less votes than before, were rigged against it.
The Peoples’ Progressive Party went to extraordinary lengths over ten months to find eighteen Guyanese willing to agree to have their names submitted to the President of Guyana for consideration to be appointed to one of the most difficult, controversial and thankless of jobs – Chair of the Elections Commission. Of the last six names submitted, two immediately leap out for consideration. Retired Major General Joe Singh was the highly respected Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force and was a former Chair of the Elections Commission for the 2002 elections, which were credibly held. Attorney at Law Teni Housty is a well-respected, well-qualified, senior, experienced, lawyer and former President of the Guyana Bar Association. Many of the other nominees are also well qualified but no one can seriously assert that the political persuasion of either of these gentlemen, if any, would influence their decisions. Many observers expected, or at least hoped, that President Granger would find suitable persons from the last six.
The PPP has announced that it will mount a constitutional challenge to the President’s appointment. The best time for this was after the President had rejected the first six names and in doing so had suggested that the names should be of only judges, former judges or persons qualified to be judges. The results of the case which was filed after the Leader of the Opposition had submitted a second set of names, showed that it could have been possible to obtain an order from the court directing the President to choose a name from that first six. The Leader of the Opposition having submitted two further sets of six names, each at the invitation of the President, for understandable reasons, has deprived him of the opportunity of having an order in relation to the first six names.
Since it became known that Dr. Steve Surujballi will be retiring shortly as Chairman of the Elections Commission, popularly known by the acronym, GECOM, there has been a flurry of activity in connection with the appointment of a new Chair. The Opposition has written to Minister Joe Harmon. The Leader of the Opposition announced that he would be engaging in wide consultations, which is a positive step since some of the bodies he mentioned have been critics of the PPP from time to time. Mr. Harmon indicated that the President has written the Leader of the Opposition and has triggering the process.
The process by which the Chair is appointed is provided for by the Constitution. In 1991 Dr. Cheddi Jagan, then Leader of the Opposition PPP, refused to accept the continuation in office of Chairman of GECOM, Sir Harry Bollers. President Carter persuaded President Hoyte to retire Chief Justice Bollers and asked Dr. Jagan for six names, which would be acceptable to President Hoyte, from whom he would choose one to be the new Chair. Among the persons searching for names were myself and Miles Fitzpatrick.
Since Rudy Collins, Chairman of what was then known as the Elections Commission, put his life on the line in October 1992 against rampaging mobs determined to trash the Commission’s offices and derail the electoral process, the Commission has been the target of politicians who seek an excuse for losing elections.
With that history, Steve Surujballi showed exceptional courage in accepting the job as Chair in 1998 and remaining in office in the face of unfair, sometimes savage, criticism, the latest from Mr. Mansoor Nadir of the PPP/C. After his term of office has come to an end, it would be a miracle if any other Guyanese would have the fortitude to accept the job.