The 2001 election

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
March 25, 2001

My wife and I voted at the polling station at Mae's School in Subryanville in the middle of the morning on March 19. The process could not have gone more smoothly. Everything was peaceful and well-organised. The presiding officials were efficient, friendly and composed. Their training sessions must have been time well spent.

If this experience was even approximated in the great majority of polling stations then the voting on election day 2001 will have approached the exemplary. That polling was in fact well conducted has been confirmed by the observers from whom we have so far heard. The most knowledgeable group, the group most thoroughly immersed in the whole election and voting process, the long-term observation mission, has stated that the elections have broadly met international standards and that the omissions from the voters list were not confined to any particular region or party. President Carter has called it "a very good election." I liked his phrase used in praise of Guyanese at the polls on March 19: "the peaceful persistence of polling day staff and voters."

In fact there do not seem to have been any major problems except for the always foreseen problem of those persons who found themselves ineligible to cast a vote because they were not on the register. In elections 95 per cent accuracy in the register of voters is considered reasonable and provides a good enough basis for the people to elect a legitimate government. In Guyana this margin of error was agreed as acceptable by all the parties before election day. The trouble, in an almost paranoically divided Guyana, is that in an electorate of 440,000 a 5 per cent error represents 22,000 persons, each of whom can be made into a cause celebre provoking huge alarm.

The thing to remember, if only calm and objective consideration was the norm, is that the errors are spread throughout the whole electorate. Therefore, while 22,000 errors - or, to put a human face on statistics, 22,000 aggrieved electors - are deeply to be regretted and one can feel genuine sympathy for each one of them who made the effort to register, the fact is that all parties are similarly affected by the errors.

It is human for the loser to feel most aggrieved by his share of the errors and it is also natural for the loser to be more aggressive about the impact his share of the errors may have had on the result. However, the winner as much as the loser has suffered from the errors and the result remains valid.

The only way this would not be true is if hard, precise, checkable evidence had been produced showing that error was skewed drastically in favour of the winner by intent or even conspiracy. Unless evidence of this kind, weighty enough to convince GECOM, could be produced, the election, even with over 20,000 disgruntled electors, must be valid.

I believe Major-General (retired) Joe Singh deserves the highest possible praise and the thanks of the whole nation. In an office bound to attract the most searching inquiries and the most suspicious critics, people with agendas looking in from all sides, he has worked very hard for the good of us all, exercised consummate and painstaking diplomacy in obtaining consensus among his GECOM colleagues, displayed calm and intelligence of the highest order and conducted himself with dignity, complete integrity and goodwill to all. I honestly do not think I am exaggerating. This was an impossible job which Joe Singh took on as a patriotic duty and has somehow handled successfully. I do not think any other Guyanese could have handled this assignment.

The main parties have all along declared themselves irrevocably committed to inclusivity in conducting the business of governing Guyana. They have said that the future of the country absolutely depends on recruiting for public service, across the broadest possible range of Guyanese, those with the best talent, the relevant experience, the most appropriate qualifications and the greatest patriotic commitment. This can only mean that party loyalty, however important in an election campaign, cannot take first place in governing the country. This is especially true in Guyana where 40 years of hostility and division along partisan/racial lines have hardened the bitter impression that party connection will always come first in all aspects of administering the nation including appointment to jobs and the awarding of contracts.

So, what follows from this, without any backsliding and without hesitation? It can only be a reaching out by the President, reinforced now by the people's expressed will, to include in his administration, in state agencies and corporations, in the organisation and running of Parliament, in important watchdog roles, in diplomacy and in external representation Guyanese not of his party persuasion and including even those well known as supporters of his main opponent. Just as importantly, the President must immediately strive to bring the two main parties together to consider further constitutional reform as a matter of urgency. That essential job is by no means over. Of course, reaching out depends for its success on the outstretched hand being grasped. After the bitterness and suspicions of the last three years, and also because a loser's pride is bound to be more bruised and sensitive, the grasping of the offered hand may even be the harder of the two gestures which will be needed to transform the future of Guyana. A lot of spit is going to have to be swallowed on both sides. Swallowing spit, especially if it is full of accumulated bile, is not pleasant. But, honestly, what is the alternative?