From rigging to int’l sanctions and finally, democracy
For the world over, 2020 will be an unforgettable year – even more so for Guyanese as it was the time the country hosted its “mother of all elections” – so aptly dubbed for its unprecedented five-month duration marked by a series of bizarre events that left many mystified and horrified at the brazenness that was unfolding right before their eyes.
It was no secret: blatant attempts were being made to steal the elections. It was witnessed by all stakeholders and well documented by international and local electoral observers, and even heads of the diplomatic missions in Guyana. The horrors of those five months – March to July – will undoubtedly live on – for a very long time – in the minds of all Guyanese.
Like the saying goes “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, the first signs of the ghastly plot were witnessed on the evening of March 2, 2020 – after the close of polls – when elections officers of the country’s largest electoral district, Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica) complained of feeling tired and opted to resume the verification process the following day.
The move was viewed with much suspicion by the then parliamentary Opposition, the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) as all the other voting districts had practically completed their verification exercise.
The following day, resumption of the counting was significantly delayed due to the Returning Officer Clairmont Mingo suddenly falling ill and being escorted from his office in a wheelchair. After some time, a clerk took over so that the process could be resumed. When verification resumed, elections officials began to use unverified spreadsheets with inaccurate figures to verify the votes. The figures being used by the electoral officials differed significantly from those on the Statements of Poll (SoPs) – official electoral materials which document that votes gained by each political party at a polling station.
With little progress being made for that day, staffers began to complain of feeling tired once more. After much objections, a new batch of employees eventually took over, and the process recommenced.
Later that evening or during the wee hours of the following day, an Information Technology worker at the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) who had complained of feeling tired – who was later identified as Enrique Livan – was busted in a room all alone with two critical pieces of technology: a flash drive and a laptop which were being used in the tabulation process.
In light of these events, international observers had begun to raise eyebrows and during briefings with the media, expressed concerns about the delays in the process.
On March 5, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change’s Karen Cummings showed up at the Command Centre and requested a meeting with the international observers where she threatened to revoke their accreditation. Her threat attracted the wrath of the late Owen Arthur, who was heading the Commonwealth Observers Mission to Guyana.
Later that day, a “bomb threat” was made in an apparent effort to force party agents and other accredited individuals out of the building. But many refused to exit and leave behind sensitive electoral documents.
After that delay, Mingo returned to the Command Centre where he made a fraudulent declaration of the election result for Region Four – without the process of verification of the SoPs being completed in the presence of stakeholders. In fact, it was only People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) Chairwoman Volda Lawrence who signed off on the document while all other stakeholders, including the other contesting political parties, objected to the declaration. During his attempts to make the fraudulent declaration, party agents and other stakeholders erupted in a vociferous cry, rejecting the attempts to bypass a transparent process.
At this point, tensions were high and the Chair of the Elections Commission, Retired Justice Claudette Singh was locked away in a room in the building and had not emerged for hours. Eventually, a number of party agents stormed the office amid concerns that the Chairwoman was being held against her will.
The PPP/C – through its lawyers including Anil Nandlall – promptly secured injunctions against the declaration. Despite the injunctions, GECOM released to the media the fraudulent declaration made by Mingo, which showed the then incumbent APNU/AFC securing 136,335 votes and the PPP/C winning 77,258 votes for Region Four – a woeful misrepresentation of the actual votes gained, as uncovered in the transparent and certified countrywide recount process.
Later on in the evening of March 5, ranks of the Tactical Services Unit stormed the Command Centre and evicted all party agents who were guarding SoPs.
On March 11, Chief Justice (ag) Roxane George ruled that the verification process be done in a transparent manner. As such, on March 12, the verification process recommenced, but Mingo continued to read from a spreadsheet with figures that vastly differed from those on the SoPs. When the matter was brought to the attention of the GECOM Chair, she suspended the activities until she could get the court’s written judgment.
The process was put off to the following day when more drama continued to unfold, resulting in the heads of the ABCE nations’ embassies walking out of the Command Centre. After the irregularities persisted, Mingo was summoned to the court of the Chief Justice. He returned to the Command Centre and announced that the process would be resumed later that afternoon at GECOM’s High Street Secretariat. A small white bedsheet hung up on a feeble board was used to project the numbers being called out during the verification process. No one could make out the figures. When objections were raised by party officials and observers, they were verbally abused by an APNU/AFC agent.
Many stakeholders eventually began to leave as the exercise was one of futility, since the electoral officials continued unabated, despite objections, to use the doctored figures. Mingo eventually made a second unlawful declaration.
The following day, it was announced that the political leaders from both sides, that is, the then President David Granger and the then Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo agreed to a Caricom-supervised recount. It was announced by the then Chair of Caricom, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley that Granger requested a recount of the ballots in Region Four in accordance with the ruling of the Chief Justice (ag) on March 11. However, it was eventually agreed that there would be a countrywide recount.
On March 14, a high-level Caricom team arrived in the country to begin working out the logistics for the recount exercise.
The next day, GECOM began moving ballot boxes to the Arthur Chung Conference Centre, where the recount was slated to begin the following day. The next day, it was reported that Granger and Jagdeo had to sign an agreement before the recount began. The next day, the recount had still not commenced as GECOM claimed it was still sorting out the legal implications of this exercise. On the afternoon of March 17, GECOM was served with an injunction, which was filed by an APNU/AFC supporter Ulita Moore, blocking the recount exercise. As a result, the Caricom team departed Guyana, prompting the Chairwoman to issue a statement expressing that “It is clear that there are forces that do not want to see the votes recounted for whatever reason” and further warning that “any Government which is sworn in without a credible and fully transparent vote count process would lack legitimacy”.
The Court of Appeal, on April 7, delivered a judgment in the Ulita Moore case, paving the way for the commencement of the countrywide recount. The Appeal Court ruled that GECOM has the authority to do a recount of ballots, but cannot accord this power to any other body.
However, the recount only commenced on May 6 – following the arrival of a new Caricom team on May 1. The team was granted special permission to fly to Guyana, since, at the time, the country’s airports were closed due to COVID-19. At the time, several international observers had departed due to the prolonged legal battle and amid COVID-19 concerns. When it was time for the recount to begin, several international observers, including the Carter Center, were denied permission to fly to Guyana by the Granger regime – which, all the while, was contending that it won the elections and that this would be proven in the recount.
The recount exercise lasted some 33 days and saw the smaller/newer political parties playing a key role as they banded together to stand up for democracy, which was being constantly threatened by attempts of compromised electoral officials to alter the results of the election. In fact, the recount exercise uncovered the widespread inflation of numbers by Mingo and cohorts to give a false win to the then incumbent APNU/AFC. For instance, for Ballot Box #4601, the SoP indicated a total vote of 200 for the APNU/AFC; however, Mingo gave that political party 230 in his fraudulent declarations. The recount confirmed that APNU/AFC received 200 votes. Countless instances of this nature persisted for Region Four under the supervision of Mingo.
In fact, in its final report following the Caricom-certified recount, the European Union Electoral Observer Mission Report documented that “…the RO and GECOM staff deployed all possible effort to make sure no stakeholder would ever be able to examine the SoPs”.
Needless to say, the recount confirmed that the PPP/C won the elections with a commanding 233,336 votes, a remarkable lead of 15,416 over its nearest political rival, the APNU/AFC.
But even after stressing that it would accept the results of the recount and that Caricom was the most important interlocutor in the electoral deadlock in Guyana, Granger refused to accept the results of recount and had one of his party’s supporters, Eslyn David, challenge the recount results. The case went all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice, which ruled that the recount was valid and the results should form the basis for the declaration.
Notwithstanding, Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield repeatedly refused to submit his final report to the GECOM Chair containing the recount results, and instead, submitted, on more than one occasion, the fraudulent results which were declared by Mingo.
The APNU/AFC mounted another court challenge in the name of supporter Misenga Jones, who challenged the recount order. But that matter went all the way to the Appeal Court, which unanimously threw out her application on July 30.
During that period of litigation, immense international pressure mounted on the Granger Administration to concede defeat, with the US eventually going as far as imposing sanctions (Visa restrictions) on several top electoral and then Government officials.
Cornered, Lowenfield eventually submitted his final report with the recount figures, thus paving the way for the PPP/C’s Irfaan Ali to be sworn in on August 2, 2020 as the country’s ninth Executive President – a move widely lauded by Guyana’s global partners as a major win for democracy.
During the five-month long tumultuous electoral period, the then APNU/AFC Government had advanced a number of wild and unsubstantiated claims such as several Russians had been brought to Guyana in an effort to oust the APNU/AFC from government by rigging the election and notwithstanding, it had these “suspects” deported despite accusing them of a major electoral crime. The APNU/AFC also refused to divulge much on the widespread disparities in the votes confirmed by the SoPs and the recount against the figures used by Mingo, other than to say Mingo’s numbers matched those on its SoPs. But, notwithstanding, the APNU/AFC has, to this day, refused to release its SoPs. In fact, it has refused to include the SoPs in two election petitions which it has filed in the High Court challenging the results of the elections.
With a criminal investigation already ongoing into the events of those five months and several top electoral officials facing the courts on a number of offences in relation to electoral fraud, the burning question is – what’s in store for the new year? Will culpable persons face the consequences for their actions? Will there be more bombshell revelations regarding the conspiracy to defraud the electorate? Will there be significant reforms at GECOM?