By Indranie Deolall
Some five years ago, the then executive president of Guyana, Donald Ramotar famously declared at a press conference, “We are convinced that these elections were rigged,” following early general and regional polls.
Criticising the May 11, 2015 voting process and results that put his main competitor just ahead, he claimed his People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) was cheated of victory, due to outright collusion between the Guyana Elections Commission’s (GECOM) and the opposition groups led by A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) coalition dominated by long-time rival, the People’s National Congress (PNC).
On election day, Ramotar had sagely stated, “Whoever loses should peacefully accept.” Three tense days after it became apparent that the nation had voted to change the minority government following the party’s exhaustive and exhausting 23-year vice-grip on power, the sweating president told reporters gathered at his party’s Freedom House headquarters the uncomfortable truth, “I cannot concede that I lost this election.”
This week, exhausted Guyanese may once again be remembering that stunning admission, if unspoken, for this time Ramotar’s successor, the incumbent president David Granger has retreated as usual behind another deafening and disturbing wall of silence, so far unable to admit the clear and present evidence of his party’s defeat by 15,000 votes, and failing one again to reassure a nervous populace who has been put through 100 days of electoral impasse hell.
Yet the country breathed a collective of relief and quietly celebrated the successful but arduous completion of recounting nearly half a million votes cast in the 2020 elections, supported by the daily toil of many dedicated and determined young people including from the new, smaller parties aghast about the absence of a definite result months after the critical polls. They took a combined total of just over 9,000 votes with the newcomer politician, the indigenous leader, Lenox Shuman’s Justice and Liberty Party (JLP) winning a seat outright that will be shared, in a historic move, with two other groups, A New and United Guyana (ANUG) and The New Movement (TNM).
The recount of ballots cast on March 2 concluded this week with the certification of Region Four, the largest and most prized electoral district, which made all the difference in the 2015 polls and again this time around. Overall, the exercise proved that the PPP/C captured about 233,000 votes across the country, as against the APNU’s 217,000, confirming the shocking extent of the earlier and extensive fiddling by the Region Four Returning Officer (RO), Clairmont Mingo who inflated numbers for the coalition and deflated figures for the PPP/C during the botched tabulation process. Twice in March, Mingo used a doctored spreadsheet and unverified results to announce the coalition as the winner.
As the APNU/AFC stubbornly sticks to its refusal to release their original Statements of Polls (SOPs), and Guyana anxiously waits for the next steps towards GECOM formally announcing the winner, the party continues to furiously peddle nasty allegations of widespread fraud and irregularities, since it has apparently forgotten signing off on the original documents for all the Regions, without any major issues back in early March, in a heavily-scrutinised election endorsed by local and international observers.
President Granger said then he was satisfied with the electoral process and praised the Commission, but has since swung back and forth, insisting that he will accept the expected final declaration of GECOM’s chairman, retired Justice Claudette Singh, while publicly maintaining and celebrating that the APNU+AFC won the elections, mere days after Mingo’s rigged statements which Granger has never mentioned or condemned.
A week ago, as GECOM neared the end of the more than month-long recount watched by a second three-member group of CARICOM observers and signed off by all political parties except the APNU+AFC, Granger charged there was a clear manipulation of the electoral process. In a national address, he advised citizens to await the full four stage-completion of the recount operation, comprising the counting, reporting by the Chief Election Officer (CEO) who has a June 13 deadline and the CARICOM observers, a review by GECOM and the declaration of the final results by the GECOM head, retired Justice Singh.
Such statements by Granger and top coalition members, especially his number two, COVID-19 Task Force chief and former director-general of the ministry of the presidency, Joseph Harmon, have signalled the coalition is preparing to reject the final recount result.
In the previous elections, with a registered overall voters’ turnout of 71 percent, the APNU joined the AFC in the coalition that took office in May 2015, winning by about 4,500 votes. But Granger’s government lost a no-confidence motion in parliament in December 2018, when its slim one-seat majority shifted with the surprise crossover vote by disgruntled AFC member, Charrandass Persaud. The APNU+AFC regime refused to resign even as it lost related cases at the final Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and continued in government for well over a year following the motion.
The staggering sense of déjà vu is overwhelming. The 2015 elections were called due to a stand-off between president Ramotar and the National Assembly, after he had defied spending cuts imposed by the body, resulting in the legislature calling for a motion of no confidence. Ramotar subsequently suspended the National Assembly, dissolved it, and announced the election date on 20 January 2015.
In March 2015, Ramotar wanted a recount of every single vote arguing that GECOM’s CEO Keith Lowenfield had identified problems with nearly 500 polling results. Despite the Commission’s admission that a total recount would make little difference to the final outcome, president Ramotar like his successor president Granger chose to ignore the authoritative conclusions of international observer teams ranging from the Carter Center, the Commonwealth, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Organisation of American States (OAS), to the envoys of the United States of America (USA), Canada and Great Britain, that the elections were free, fair and credible.
“We are not bad losers, nor are we delaying the elections (results). We are winners, but were cheated out of victory,” PPP/C official Ganga Persaud insisted at the March 2015 briefing, alleging that the elections were rife with irregularities. Ramoutar was eventually forced to acknowledge defeat days on when hard reality hit home as several top diplomats snubbed his summons to a related meeting on the PPP/C’s concerns over the results.
The GECOM chairman at that time, Steve Surujbally formally announced the APNU+AFC candidate David Granger as the president-elect, stressing that the Commission had made a genuine effort “to do right and not to (just) look right.”
As the election agent for the PPP/C, Persaud later filed a legal petition demanding a complete recount and fresh polls, alleging that the entire electoral process was flawed citing procedural errors and fake SOPs, but up to now, incredibly, the matter is still pending before the High Court even as Guyana grapples with the latest prolonged political crisis in the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Now, we may yet see other petitions, along the same lines but from the APNU, that may perhaps be left to languish until long after the 2025 elections.
With warnings sounding loudly, including up to midweek from the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who reiterated calls for “a quick and credible conclusion to the vote recount,” Granger, once lauded as a patriot of integrity and honour, will hopefully respect the clear majority given that the game is up and choose “to do right,” in preparing to leave office and take up the mantle of opposition leader in a new parliament that will be once more be closely divided at 33-31-1.
ID ruminates on the words of the British development economist Sir Paul Collier, who visited Guyana in 2018 during Granger’s administration, that “Elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.”