Nightmare on Elections Street

by Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
January 21, 2001

THE recent decision by Justice Claudette Singh on the petition case brought by the opposition People's National Congress/Reform (PNC/R) party, to overturn the results of the December 1997 elections, has highlighted an important feature regarding the emergence of democratic rule in Guyana.

Predictably, also, having armed itself with distortions of that decision, the PNC/R, to the surprise of no one, gives shrilly-intensified pretexts and specious arguments tinged with customary threats to public order, for the ruling People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government to demit office.

These threats are the acid test for the Stanley Ming reform element of the PNC that signed a contract with the party leader Desmond Hoyte.

As all of Guyana knows, when the PNC signs contracts, these are usually worthless. Remember the Hermandston Accord of 1998?

So, here we go again as all citizens are presented with yet another Nightmare on Elections Street produced and directed by the PNC.

As Mr Hoyte and the PNC/R's coterie of factotums scream an embellished victory, one important fact is lost in the deafening din. The kind of ruling Justice

Singh made would have been impossible under a PNC government where the judiciary functioned in fear of the executive branch of government and was criticised, severely at times, for lacking independence.

Mr Hoyte, in particular, was accused of using frivolous lawsuits to intimidate critics - especially the Catholic Standard newspaper under the editorship of Fr. Andrew Morrison - and to cow others into silent acceptance of dictatorship.

The courts had become an agency of bureaucratic thuggery in service of the PNC party and government as they asserted fiefdom (more appropriately "thiefdom") rights in Guyana.

What this decision on the elections has signaled, however, is a new time where judges, at least the incorruptible ones, feel once again free to uphold the law fearlessly. We should derive great satisfaction from this while noting that the governance style of the ruling PPP/C has had a lot to do with the positive development.

What is regrettable, however, is that the decision so long delayed has come at a most inopportune time so close to the elections scheduled for March 19 that it could precipitate another crisis.

This fact re-raises arguments well presented by Chief Justice Desiree Bernard at the Guyana Bar Association (GBA) Conference on "The State of the Legal

Profession: The Way Forward," which was held in Guyana November 25-26, 2000.

Ms Bernard called for the introduction of modern technology -- especially computers -- in the courtrooms and for judges. Much time would be saved and accuracy enhanced.

As she put it, "Every judge should have at his/her disposal a computer terminal to assist in legal research and to be kept informed about recent developments in all aspects of the law as well as facilitate the speedy preparation of rulings and decisions." In fact, many of us overseas Guyanese know of sources and international funding agencies that might be sympathetic to requests.

A week ago, with Hermandston about to expire as it did on January 17, two groups of citizens who comprise opinion leaders and others of moral influence from religious and other professional organisations, came out in support of the current government remaining in power until the next elections, and for a fruitful outcome to inter-party talks initiated by President Jagdeo to settle governance issues until then.

Just a few days have passed since Justice Singh's ruling and the end of Hermandston, but already many citizens are expressing fears of political violence deriving from this being the main opposition party's method of protest around Georgetown, the capital city.

The common ground between ordinary citizens and the two civic groups is fear of political unrest. The situation of the two civic groups making moral appeals to immoral vagabonds reminds of the rise of two important interest groups that became very active in the 1990s - the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) and Guyanese Action for Reform and Democracy (GUARD).

The unity of these groups was forged on the anvil of necessity, i.e., pressuring the authoritarian PNC government of Mr Hoyte to stop pussyfooting about elections that had been due in 1990.

The common cause this time around also involves the PNC. This is because it is the same authoritarian body that, as an opposition force, is still disrespectful of law and public order!

According to the PNC/R, their party under Mr Hoyte won in the court of law with Justice Singh's rulings. In a strict sense, this is true but that limited sense does not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The judge went further than the local and international scrutineers in their criticisms of electoral violations and found many irregularities. However, she too found insufficient evidence, based upon those flaws, that the election results would have been different absent the violations.

Even so, it must be conceded that her findings do create some level of embarrassment for the ruling PPP/C party and government.

It is her second finding that the elections were unconstitutional which, when examined carefully, tells the fuller truth and highlights the PNC/R's hypocrisy.

The basis of the unconstitutionality is a conflict between the 1980 Constitution under which the elections were contested and a law passed by the National Assembly in 1996 and 1997.

More specifically, the 1996 and 1997 amendments to the Representation of

the People Act, which made the possession of an ID card compulsory in order to cast a vote, contravened Articles 59 and 159 of the 1980 Constitution. The

Constitution is more liberal in requirements for voting whereas the Representation of the People's Act was restrictive by mandating narrower specificity in the use of ID cards.

The latter disenfranchised thousands of citizens. It is on that technicality that the judge based her ruling.

The PPP/C has argued quite persuasively, that the PNC/R's victory is hollow, hypocritical and downright sanctimonious because the law specifying the use of ID cards, whose intent was to decrease fraud, had been fully supported by all the political parties in the National Assembly including, most vociferously by the PNC. It is only upon losing the elections that the main opposition party suddenly discovered the constitutional loophole and made it their call to arms.

In the process, the whole country has been made to suffer maddening political instability and severe economic difficulties for three years by tactics of protest that somehow always ended with political violence and the constant threat of it. Guyana lived its own version of the horror film, "Nightmare on Elm Street."

With not-so-hidden threats emanating from the PNC/R's camp once again, we are getting ready for a Nightmare on Elections Street - Part 3. Or is it Part

4, 5, or 6?

And to think that PNC factotums were the first to rush out with criticism about the U.S. elections of last November 2000!

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