Getting to the bottom of it

Stabroek News
January 5, 1998

The report of the Commonwealth Observers group on the December 15 elections articulates in a very simple manner how quickly things can unravel.

As damaging as it is, it however, does not lend its findings to the assertion of "massive" rigging of the elections as is being claimed by the PNC. The mandate and scope of investigation of the Commonwealth team fell far short of this and it may be worth considering for future purposes whether it makes sense to have such a limited mission present at one's elections.

What the report does is to lay bare two things. In terms of crisis management, the Elections Commission was found to be severely lacking during verification and some key managers and employees (presiding officers etc.) it relied on for order failed to perform their tasks.

As all have so far stated, activities up to the close of polls accorded well with expectations and all was silky smooth up to that point save for minor hiccups.

The post-count process deteriorates rapidly however and here is where the Commission effectively lost control of the process by having to resort to the aid of political parties and observer groups to produce results to the satisfaction of all. In retrospect, that was a disaster and a situation ripe for exploitation. Once the Commission signalled its weakness - though ironically out of a willingness to be open and accommodating - it became an easy target.

And how did that happen? Mostly because in Region Four Presiding Officers failed to either properly notarise the vital Statements of Poll or transmit them in the manner which had previously been agreed.

The clearly defined Commission process required that properly signed statements of poll be entered into the computer system as the only means of collating and transmitting results. On this basis, the Commission had begun releasing some figures.

But as the Commonwealth report points out, "the (Elections Commission computer) 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". This, the report said, was particularly severe in Region Four, the largest electoral district.

It was at this juncture on December 16, the Commission invited parties to assist in the verification process by resorting to their documentation in the absence of the signed Statements of Poll.

Here is where the Commission's poor crisis management of this aspect was exposed.

"The Commission failed to organize effectively or manage efficiently the tally process in which the political parties had been invited to participate", the report said. It pointed out that tally sheets were not provided in sequence and this led to double counting. Furthermore, the errant Presiding Officers - who laboured unbelievably long over the vote count - had lumped national and regional results together, adding even more confusion. The report further noted that there was a "worrying disparity between the results that were agreed between the Commission and the party agents and those that were announced by the Chairman of the Commission" (Doodnauth Singh).

Conspiracy theorists continue to come up with daring schemes worthy of Machiavellian acclaim but these all remain unproven and untested. Whether it was fraud on one side or the other, an administrative time-bomb or innocent confusion the theories remain theories that only an independent enquiry can ultimately settle.

An international audit of the election results must proceed but in the interim, neither the Commission nor the Guyanese people should lose the opportunity of getting to the bottom of the confusion post-December 15.

And it is extremely important. Those electoral officers who are guilty of complicity in acts - either by design or incompetence - which delayed results and threw the process into confusion must be identified and `blacklisted'. They must not be permitted to participate in future elections.

Let's start in Region Four. All Presiding Officers for Region Four and their support staff on December 15 should be summoned and interviewed individually on what happened at the close of poll, if they complied with set procedures, if they didn't, why and upon whose instructions. This should not be too burdensome a task for the Commission. Surely commissioners on both sides would be interested in hearing what these officers have to say. Their narrations could very well be the basis for a very gripping drama.