posted to the newsgroup: soc.culture.caribbean
January 2, 1998
GUYANAGATE wishes, in the interest of transparency, to share with the international community the full original text of the pertinent section of the report of the Commonwealth Observer Group which is reflected in a Stabroek News report of 1st January 1998.
The General and Regional Elections in Guyana
15 December 1997
The Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group
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The first step in the process was the separation of the Voter Identification Cards from ballots. This was a time-consuming process as, in many cases, the cards had slipped between the folds of the ballot and several checks had to be made to ensure that they had all been removed. The Presiding Officer and Counting Assistant then separated ballots for the general election from those for the regional election. Ballots for the general election were counted first and presiding officers were scrupulous in showing party agents, poll clerks and observers every ballot opened before placing them on the correct pile. Rejected ballots were also meticulously checked and displayed and marked accordingly.
The count was generally orderly and we were impressed with the professionalism of the election officials and the conduct of the party agents. The presence of observers was acknowledged and we encountered no difficulty in observing the count. We were further impressed by the spirit of co-operation among all those present.
After each count we attended, the Presiding Officer verified the election results with those in attendance and entered them into an official Statement of Poll. The Presiding Officer then signed this document and requested the signatures of Polling Agents and in some cases, those of the Observers.
The ballots and all election materials were placed in separately sealed envelopes which were then locked, sealed and signed by several people. The Statement of Poll, which is the legal document for the official tallying of results by the Elections Commission, was sent in a separately sealed envelope with the ballot box to the District Offices of the Elections Commission and thereafter to the Commission's Headquarters in Georgetown. In one case, one Observer reported that the envelope with the singed Statement of Poll was placed in the ballot box.
The transit period from polling station to the Commission's Headquarters was in some cases expected to be well over 24 hours. However, where possible - and this was the case in most places - the results were either telephoned or radioed into the head office of the Commission
We found the process of counting to be unnecessarily slow and tedious. In some cases, it took more than three hours to count less than 200 ballots. At some polling stations the lack of proper lighting was a contributing factor, while in many centres it was mostly the necessary procedures that made the count last long. On the whole, in spite of the shortfalls, and the obvious exhaustion of all concerned, the counting was concluded to the satisfaction of all parties.
However, it would appear that the procedures with respect to handling the Statement of Poll were not followed completely in some polling stations, notably in Region 4. For instance, some Statements of Poll were locked in the ballot boxes instead of being sent in a separately sealed envelope; while other Statements of Poll did not have the required validating signatures.
Overall, however, we were impressed with the spirit of the polling staff and their determination to perform their tasks professionally. A notice in the polling station in one region sums up this attitude: "we are working towards a free, fair historical transparent and effective election. We can, we must, we will."
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Here the problems began. Early election results were first received by telephone and radio, where possible on Monday evening, followed by the ballot boxes and Statements of Poll. This process continued through Friday 19 December. The procedure adopted by the Commission was that all duly signed Statements of Poll would be fed into the computer. This commenced on Monday and the Commission was able to announce some initial results.
The database system initially appeared to be reliable. Problems arose, however, because a significant number of Statements of Poll were unsigned or were absent. Or, as we had occasionally observed, they had not been sent in the designated envelopes provided separately, but had been enclosed in sealed ballot boxes. These Statements of Poll could not be fed into the computer and thus could not be reflected in the tally and reported. The problem was particularly acute in Region 4 which is the largest region and includes Georgetown, accounting for some 200,000 electors.
By late Tuesday the Commission realised that the breakdown in the process was causing a severe delay in the declaration of results. At this point the Elections Commission made a decision to address these problems by involving the political parties in a new process to verify the results from the poll in the presence of observers. The party representatives were requested to meet at the Commission at 8 a.m. on Wednesday 17 December and to bring in their tally sheets for reconciliation with the information that the Commission had received. Out of these the official results would be declared. This process of verification contributed to the unavoidable delay in the declaration of the results, which still remained incomplete three days after polling.
This system was slow, being manual rather than computerised. A declaration of results was further compromised because the Commission failed to organise effectively or manage efficiently the tally process in which the political parties had been invited to participate. The tally sheets were not presented in a sequential order and this led to double tallying of some polls. Often national and regional results were combined by Presiding Officers as a total. The Commission did not identify these errors until they were pointed out by party agents. In other instances the national and regional tally sheets had become separated so that only national or only regional votes could be tallied. At this point the Commission was unable to produce the original ballot paper accounts or ballot boxes.
There was a worrying disparity between the results that were agreed between the Commission and party agents and those that were announced by the Chairman of the Commission. We observed that the overall administration of the tallying process by the Commission was not only not transparent but very poor. This exacerbated concerns already expressed by most party representatives.
At 10 p.m. on Wednesday 17 December some of the party representatives, frustrated by the shortcomings in the tally procedures, insisted that the count be halted. The Commission was asked to ensure that all the relevant documentation be made available and a proper management system put in place before they were prepared to resume the tally.
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On Thursday morning, 18 December, the tally resumed with the participation of the party representative and continued, with some breaks, until 3 a.m. on Friday morning. The delays continued to exacerbate the uncertainty and rumour-mongering rife on the streets.
During the process of verifying the results, we observed that the overall administration of the Commission with respect to the entire tallying process was poor. This further added to the concerns already held by some party representatives .
The protracted period of verification, during which the Commission announced election results piecemeal, created an environment which was exploited by both major political parties to declare victory prematurely.
The role played by the EAB in the tallying process was commendable. Its participation in this process particularly in Region 4, allowed the Elections Commission to use their Statements of Poll to assist in the resolution of disputed poll results. They were regularly appealed to as a reference point for mediation/negotiations. Regrettably, this did not resolve the problems that arose, which grew progressively worse culminating in the PNC announcing that it would not accept the results. It demanded a recount of the votes in Region 4, where the problems were concentrated.
Our Group, concerned at the rising tension mandated the Chairman to consult other Observer delegations and as a result a series of meetings were held between the groups. This series of meetings resulted in a proposal for a joint visit to the Commission to be formally updated by the chairman on the cause and nature of the problem. The Heads of the Observer Groups then decided that it might be useful to make personal contact with the leaders of both main political parties. This was achieved and separate meetings were held with the leaders at 8.30 p.m. on Thursday with the ruling party and 6.30 p.m. with the minority leader.
It was reported that shortly before these meetings a street demonstration resulted in tear gas and shots being fired. It was reported that 11 people had been wounded some of whom were hospitalised.
Both leaders expressed their deep concern at the tense atmosphere in the capital and communicated their earnest desire that the observer groups remain in the country to see the process to its conclusion and to assist in calming and reassuring the populace.
The main political parties had both already publicly claimed victory. The leaders of the Observer teams urged both leaders to do their utmost to control their supporters and not to make inflammatory statements. As a result, both leaders agreed to name a liaison official to facilitate communication between the two parties.
The leader of the ruling party, in response to the suggestion of the Heads of Observer Groups, said that she would be prepared to meet the leader of the minority party to make a joint appeal to the county. The proposal was never discussed with the opposition leader.
The leader of the ruling party explained their claim to victory by producing a document which indicated that they had achieved their tally - 200,000 plus votes - and thus would be the majority party. Correspondingly, the leader of the minority party produced evidence to
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support his position that there were discrepancies in the computer compilation of the results, and he indicated that unless there was an impartial investigation into the matter he could not accept the results.
The minority leader announced at a press conference on Friday morning that his party would not accept the results of the elections and, based on his party's suspicion of nationwide fraud, would be challenging the same in the courts. Further, the party would demand that the results of each ballot box would be verified, comparing the totals obtained by the Elections Commission with those obtained from party agents countrywide. Any announcement of winners or losers, should not be reported until an investigation of the entire process was undertaken. This action was based on his party's suspicion of nationwide fraud.
A fear was expressed that, because totals of the data spreadsheets did not add up accurately and did not tally with the party representatives' numbers, there had been manual overwriting of the totals in the computer system.
Announcement of Election Results
The Chairman of the Elections Commission announced on Friday 19 December, close to midday, that the PPP/Civic party, on the basis of the results received thus far had the largest number of votes. On the basis of the Commission's projection, having regard to the number of votes counted, the number received by the PNC and the number received by the PPP/Civic, even if all the remaining votes went to the PNC it could not achieve a majority. In accordance with the Constitution he therefore declared the winning party and its leader as the President of Guyana, although all the votes had not yet been tallied.
We were informed that some opposition parties had already gone to the High Court of Guyana to ask for and injunction to prevent the continuation of the tally of the votes and to ask that the ballots from all over the country be recounted.
As these events were transpiring, particularly the threat of an injunction which might halt the process, our group was concerned as to how best we might see our mission to it end. We considered that this might entail a small representative number of us remaining in the country or returning at a later date should that become necessary.
During the morning of 19 December we awaited further developments. In the afternoon, in light of the announcement by the Chairman of the Elections Commission that the PPP/C had received the largest number of votes, the Presidential candidate for the PPP/C was sworn in as President.
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SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS AND OBSERVATIONS
We formed our Conclusions and Observations while examining most aspects of the election process during the Guyana General and Regional Elections in accordance with our Terms of Reference which state among other things that the Group "would . . . be free to propose to the authorities concerned such action on institutional, procedural and other matters as would assist the holding of such elections".
Conclusions Up until the closing of the poll the following conditions existed for the people of Guyana to freely express their will:
- the good sense of the Guyanese people - in addition to the appeal by the Elections Commission, party leaders and the leaders of the various bodies - contributed to a peaceful election on polling day;
- the high turnout at the polls was an indication of the confidence held by voters in their ability to freely exercise their choice;
- in most parts of Guyana political parties were able to campaign freely without major threat of intimidation or violence;
- the security arrangements for the poll were good;
- the secrecy of the ballot was assured;
- the arrangements for provision of materials and staff for polling stations were adequate;
- with some exceptions, the procedures were well understood and followed;
- election officers were co-operative, helpful and willing to share information;
- whilst there were shortcomings, most were not significant enough to affect the integrity of the electoral process on polling day;
- party agents behaved responsibly and there was a great deal of co-operation between them on polling day, which was an important contribution to the electoral process;
- we hope that the important role in the process played by local observers will be strengthened in the future;
- the presence of the international observers was well received by the political parties, the Commission and the voters and, we would like to think, contributed to increased confidence in the electoral process;
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- the participation of women at all levels of the electoral process needs special mention and they should be particularly commended for their role as Presiding Officers in many of the polling places;
- the Elections Commission should be congratulated on its preparations for the elections;
- all political parties in general should be commended for their adherence to the Code of Conduct;
- the voters should be congratulated for the orderly and disciplined manner in which they conducted themselves on polling day.
However, there were a number of shortcomings. These included:
- the tallying process was inadequately handled, which contributed to the problems that subsequently arose;
- the procedure at the close of poll was not accurately adhered to: this included failure by many presiding officers to sign their return;%ÿ0D
- in some cases presiding officers their results returns in ballot boxes instead of placing them in envelopes to be delivered separately to the Deputy Returning Officer;
- the Elections Commission had no clearly defined mechanism for communicating its decisions on the results to the political parties and the general public;
- the computer database for processing the tallying and the results left much to be desired;
- contrary to clearly prescribed procedures in the manual for election officials, measures were not taken to ensure that the voting of particular communities could not be easily identified.
We believe that these shortcomings contributed to the diminished credibility of the election results that were being announced by the Commission;
- We hope that the Inter-Party Committee on Constitutional Reform, or its successor committee, will include electoral reform in its work;
- important and earnest consideration should be given to the future role of the Elections Commission: it may be useful to consider the creation of a permanent institution, which might be responsible for the management, organisation and conduct of elections;
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- in view of the many difficulties still posed by the Voter Identification Card system, which prevented a number of citizens from voting, further efforts to rectify these should be undertaken;
- the Elections Commission may wish to consider a method for cross matching to ensure that prior to polling day, Voter Identification Cards and registers carry the same names;
- all parties should take a greater part in encouraging their supporters to register and collect Voter Identification Cards;
- the Elections Commission should devise a more efficient means of communicating decisions earlier to those areas which are inaccessible or have no telecommunications links;
- a formula should be devised to ensure equitable use of the public media by all political parties;
- improved mechanisms should be developed to speed up the count without loss of fairness or accuracy;
- measures should be put in place and implemented to ensure a secure means of transmission of the results an transfer of ballot boxes to the office of the Elections Commission, following the close of poll and count;
- the Elections Commission may wish to reconsider the separate declaration of the results of the Disciplined Forces Poll;
- urgent consideration should be given to ensuring that mechanisms are put in place for transparent and expeditious verification of results.