The fraudulent local government elections in 1970

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From the time the PNC-UF coalition government came to power in December 1964, the new administration under the premiership of Forbes Burnham made regular promises that local government elections under universal adult suffrage would be held. However, the government constantly postponed the holding of such polls, and it was evident that the delay was motivated by three main reasons: (1) the fear of massive defeat after the complete failure of its tailored policies and as a result the disaffection of its supporters, and especially the solid continuing support for the PPP; (2) the objection of the British sugar plantation owners who would have had to pay increased rates due to the reorganisation of the local government areas (hence the elections only in those parts of the country which were not owned by the sugar companies); and (3) adverse international publicity similar to that received after the December 1968 general elections which saw electoral fraud being employed on a grand scale, and through which the PNC took full control of the government,.

Following the rigged December 1968 elections which drew no condemnation from the US government, Prime Minister Burnham announced that local government elections to choose councillors for local village, district and town councils would soon be held. It was apparent that the PNC aimed at applying the same electoral practices employed for the general elections - electoral practices which, in any case, received the encouragement of the US government.

Preparations for these polls began during 1969 when the National Assembly enacted two pieces of legislation which set out the regulations relating to the forthcoming elections. Initially, the government announced that elections would be held on that date in six registration districts, but it finally decided on only five - Greater Georgetown, New Amsterdam, Bartica, Leguan, and Sheet Anchor / Cumberland. These elections were later fixed for 29 June 1970; elections for other areas were expected to be held in December.

When the date of the elections was finally announced, there was some scepticism among many PPP supporters who expressed reluctance to vote because they were sure that there would be a repeat of the 1968 experience, and they felt that the results of the local government elections had already been decided by the PNC. However, there was some optimism among the PPP supporters in Leguan and Sheet Anchor / Cumberland that since these were PPP strongholds their party would be able to score victories there.

New electoral regulations

In its propaganda build-up towards these elections, the PNC government claimed that the new councils would be better able to administer the affairs of the local districts. But the main objective of the PNC government in holding the local government elections was to try to convince the international community that it was winning support from Guyanese - as evidenced by its "victory" in December 1968 - and that it was making inroads into the strongholds of the PPP. However, the PNC could not convince the people of Guyana that it was popular since the great majority were still very bitter over the fraud perpetrated in 1968.

In the 1968 general election, which also saw the introduction of overseas votes, more than 19,000 of the roughly 300,000 votes were cast by proxy. The rigged results gave the PNC more than 90 percent of these proxy votes as well as more than 90 percent of the overseas votes. As would be seen, proxy voting was on an even larger scale in the 1970 local government elections, and this was allowed by new enacted regulations which allowed returning officers to use their "discretion" to permit proxy voting for "persons for whom it is likely to be impracticable or seriously inconvenient, by reason of the nature of their occupation, service, or employment, or for other good cause, to go in person to the polling place at which they are entitled to vote."

In addition, the PNC government amended the law to permit one person to cast proxy votes for up to three other persons, in addition to voting on his/her own behalf. This provided a loophole for the PNC to perpetuate fraud through the use of multiple proxies, since on the day of the elections, more than 90 percent of the proxy votes were cast by PNC activists.

The opposition political parties were also placed at a serious disadvantage since the list of persons authorised to vote by proxy was not published. For the 1968 general elections, the regulations specified that this list should have been published four days before polling day, but this was never done; this specification was removed from the laws governing the local government elections, thus freeing the government from making one available. Clearly, this law was changed to allow the perpetuation of electoral fraud.

Compiling the electoral list

For the June 1970 elections, the PNC government compiled the voters' list from the national registration list which was prepared for the 1968 general elections. A shady registration firm, recruited from the United States in 1967 by the PNC-UF coalition government, carried out the compulsory registration of all Guyanese 14 years old and over, at a time when there was no law for compulsory registration. The National Registration Act (NRA) was not passed until much later in 1968.

It is from this registration list that the names of persons 21 years old and over, registered under the NRA, were extracted for the electoral roll used in 1968 and in the local government elections of June 1970. The government ignored the Elections Commission, which in any case was shorn of its powers to revise or compile a new voters' list. Mainly because of this, the PPP and UF representatives resigned from the Commission which subsequently functioned with only two members - the Chairman and a representative of the ruling PNC.

The five areas

For the June 1970 elections, the government enlarging the urban municipalities of Georgetown and New Amsterdam by absorbing suburban areas which had grown in size in recent years. But at the same time, it reduced the physical boundaries and the size of the electorate in the three other areas where elections were to be held. Instead of holding elections in the Essequibo Islands district, which had a total of 6,690 registered voters, elections were prepared for only the island of Leguan which had 3,013 voters. And rather than having elections for the Mazaruni-Potaro district, which had 9,701 registered, the poll was prepared only for that district's main settlement, Bartica, which had 2,943 voters. The same situation existed for the Eastern Berbice registration district; instead of holding elections for the entire district, the government prepared the elections for only a section of it - the combined neighbouring villages of Sheet Anchor and Cumberland. While the entire registration district had about 8,000 voters on roll, Sheet Anchor and Cumberland had 3,306 for the local government poll.

The PNC was expected to win easily in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Bartica, which were its strongholds. On the other hand, Leguan and Sheet Anchor / Cumberland were overwhelmingly supportive of the PPP. However, by deliberately reducing the size of the electoral areas in those two registration districts, the PNC apparently was hoping to improve its chances in those two localities and to wrest political control from the PPP.

The June 1970 elections were conducted under the system of proportional representation and were even more comprehensively rigged than the 1968 general elections. The rigging was done mainly in three ways: by padding the electoral lists, by abusing the system of proxy voting, and by tampering with ballot-boxes. In addition, intimidation of voters by the PNC was openly evident.

Padding the electoral list

The PNC, in preparing the electoral roll, overdid itself by padding it and removing many genuine voters. And to prevent the PNC from losing even one of its valuable "votes"', objection to the fictitious names was made expensive and difficult, and efforts to remove them were frustrated by the PNC-hand-picked election officials. Even real live voters, especially the elderly and ailing, were intimidated into signing proxy forms allowing supporters of the PNC to vote for them. Those whose names were omitted from the electoral register had little hope of voting since they had to furnish legal documentary proof of their existence, since physical presence apparently, in the eyes of the election officials, did not amount to legal existence.

At a press conference on 6 June, PPP executive member Ranji Chandisingh stated:

"In New Amsterdam, the PPP lodged 175 objections. Of these only 3 were allowed. The electoral registrars demanded documentary proof as evidence. In all cases documents could not be produced for obvious reasons. Out of 19 persons we had claimed dead, only two were allowed by the registrar.

Letters, which have been sent out to persons objected to, are now returning from the Post Office. The Post Office claims that the persons cannot be reached, as indeed, they cannot, because they do not exist. 79 letters were received from the Post Office on June 4th. The information was as follows: deceased 15; addresses removed 43; out of the country 14; cannot be found 5; insufficiently addressed 2. These are all for New Amsterdam. So the postal authorities have confirmed that 15 out of the 19 dead persons are really dead.

Chandisingh further pointed out that at Sheet Anchor / Cumberland, another method was used. Struck off the list were persons who did not appear at the sittings where the objections were to have been held, since they were never summoned to these hearings. And out of 51 objections made by the PPP to fictitious names and dead people in the area, only 6 were allowed.

Only after the closing date of claims and objections, many genuine persons finally realised that their names were objected to before and that they were struck off the list. And in the veil of secrecy the PNC held over the electoral process, the list of objections was not made available by the registrars to the opposition parties or to the general public. On the publication of the new supplementary list, lines were drawn through names of many persons.

The padding of the list with non-existent persons was reflected on the electoral roll which increased suspiciously by 15.25 percent from September 1969 to April 1970, especially since the rate of increase of the population was only 3 percent annually. This large increase was noted particularly in the Berbice area.

Padding undoubtedly was a significant factor in the rigging process. Using the already heavily padded 1968 electoral list, a preliminary list for the entire country published a few weeks before the June local government elections clearly included the names of non-existent persons. This list in some cases showed an increase in the number of voters of as much as 27 percent in some areas, while increases of 19, 18 and 17 percent in many were common. Only large-scale "immigration" into these areas - and there was none - could account for such massive increases.

As occurred during the 1968 general elections, some individual addresses were given as the residence of large numbers of persons. For instance, 81 persons were registered at one address in North Georgetown. In Bartica, 48 people were listed at one address, but a check by PPP scrutineers accounted for only 16. Checks on the multiple names at these individual addresses accounted for only a few of them, no doubt because the majority were those of fictitious persons.

Intimidation by the PNC

In open acts of intimidation, many PPP candidates in Leguan and Sheet Anchor / Cumberland were offered jobs and other bribes to denounce the PPP and support the PNC. However, they were all PPP candidates for the Sheet Anchor / Cumberland area, a PPP stronghold, and the condition was that they should relinquish their candidacies. With regard to these acts of intimidation, PPP leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan stated on 12 June 1970:

"In the Sheet Anchor / Cumberland area, the PNC is using foul means to prevent the PPP from winning a majority of seats. We have already referred to many irregular and corrupt practices in the compilation and revision of the voter's list. Now the Government and security police are coercing candidates of the PPP to withdraw, and in one case to join the PNC's list.

The PNC is using the government machinery to bribe and intimidate to give a false impression of their electoral strength. Candidates have been forced to withdraw by threats of losing their jobs, denial of passports, and victimisation of themselves and their relatives.

We had always warned that with the assumption of power by the PNC, Guyana was heading towards fascism. The local government elections now being held are demonstrating clearly the extent to which the PNC will go to retain power. We therefore call on the Guyanese people to join us in resisting the abrogation of the constitution and the denial of civil liberties and in defeating the PNC monster."

Despite all of these irregularities, the private national media in Guyana remained silent and refused to raise their voices against the trampling of democracy by the PNC. It was only the Mirror, the PPP newspaper, which exposed the illegalities and irregularities that were taking place.

Proxy voting

A sizeable proportion of the fraud was conducted through the proxy votes. The extent of the proxy voting was such that of the total of just over 65,000 votes in the five areas, well over 10,800 were cast by proxy, a much greater proportion than for the 1968 general elections.

In Georgetown, widely regarded as a PNC stronghold, the ruling party faced a problem early on polling day because people were not turning up to the polling places to vote. The PNC did not want to be embarrassed by a low turn-out so it sent its activists to hand out "proxy" forms - authority to vote for others - to Afro-Guyanese whom they believed would support the governing party. These forms had earlier been signed in blank by returning officers, i.e., without either the name of the voter or his proxy entered in the appropriate places. This illegal practice was exposed when some persons handed in the "proxy" forms to PPP officials at Freedom House, the party headquarters. These persons said that they had been completed in their presence by the PNC activists who had invited them to exercise the proxies. And in breach of the law, many PNC offices where these proxies were issued were located within 200 yards of polling places.

Because proxies were exercised for persons who never gave authority to anyone, many PPP supporters arrived at the polling place only to be told by the presiding officer that others had already voted for them. In one significant case, a PPP candidate for a Georgetown Council seat found that someone had already voted for him, even though he never signed any proxy form.

The highest percentage (37 percent) of proxy voting occurred at Bartica. Here, many dead, under-age and non-resident persons voted by proxy. When the presiding officer asked the PPP agent who had challenged a proxy voter how he knew that the person was dead, the reply was: "Because I attended her funeral."

At Bartica, too, a large number of PPP supporters found that proxy votes had been cast very early in their names, without their consent. Coincidentally, the PPP polling agents were refused entry into the two polling places at 6.00 a.m. after their documents of official authorisation were taken from them by the presiding officers. They were eventually allowed entry after 8.00 a.m. after a period of heavy proxy voting had already occurred; they, therefore, could not observe the voting during the period that had elapsed.

In Sheet Anchor/Cumberland, proxy voting reached 30 percent of the voter turnout. While the PNC were able to bribe many people to obtain proxy votes in this area, numerous PPP supporters discovered that others had voted for them by proxy even though they had given no authority for this to be done. In addition, the non-resident vote here, as in Leguan, was also high.

Tampering with ballot boxes

But to further ensure "victory" for the PNC, tampering with the ballot boxes at the end of the polling exercise featured prominently in Georgetown, Leguan, and Sheet Anchor/Cumberland, and probably also in Bartica and New Amsterdam.

At Queen's College, the counting centre in Georgetown, PPP and UF representatives were prevented by PNC supporters to observe the ballot counting for a lengthy period.

At this counting centre, a ballot box from one area, (Kitty, Division 2), when opened and counted, contained only 310 votes. But the ballot paper counterfoils showed that 410 persons actually voted! In another Georgetown division, 437 votes were cast, but only 407 ballots were found in the box. At another area, La Penitence-Lodge, 416 votes were cast at the polling place, but when the box was opened, it contained 573 ballots, 157 more than it should have contained!

These situations occurred because of deliberate tampering with the ballot boxes. Some boxes had broken seals, and there were also physical signs that others were opened from the bottom.

Just before the polls closed, returning officers at some polling places, contrary to the regulations, informed PNC activists about the numbers of votes cast. This information was done brazenly in the presence of PPP and UF agents who were monitoring the elections. Armed with this information, PNC activists undoubtedly prepared substitute boxes filled with mostly PNC ballots - boxes which were to be switched with genuine boxes during the shipment from the polling places to the counting centres. In all likelihood, some mistakes were made such as the shortage for the Kitty ballot box, or a surplus as in La Penitence-Lodge.

To prevent transparency in the process, and contrary to guarantees given by the Chief Elections Officer and the Elections Commission, returning officers as well as PNC activists prevented PPP polling agents from travelling on the vehicles which transported the ballot boxes from the polling places to the counting centres. As a result of this deliberate act of irregularity, they could not keep a physical watch on the boxes during the period they left the polling places to the time counting began. This also allowed PNC activists who had total control of the boxes to freely switch or stuff them with fictitious ballots.

The ballot boxes in Leguan were not taken immediately to the counting centre on the island. Instead, they were transported to a guest house occupied by PNC activists, and remained there for more than two hours before they were finally taken to the counting centre nearby. During this period, PPP agents or candidates were prevented by the police from entering the guest house compound.

The rigged results

The following table shows the results of the elections. The first five columns of figures came from official sources. The figures for proxies cast were compiled from information furnished by PPP polling agents at the various polling places. The tally of 10,849 proxy votes might probably be on the low side since PPP polling agents were prevented from entering some polling places for a period on the morning of the elections.

*Ratepayers Group polled 74 votes

Leguan and Sheet Anchor/Cumberland were districts of immense PPP strength, but when the counting was finished, the most bizarre results were announced.

In Sheet Anchor/Cumberland, the PNC government declared that the PPP had polled only 525 votes, whereas the PNC got 2,045. The UF did not contest here, but a "Ratepayers Group" acquired 74 votes.

In the 1964 and 1968 general elections, also under proportional representation, the figures were 5,331 and 5,806 respectively for the PPP, while the PNC obtained only 1,405 and 1,590 respectively, from a much larger area and larger electorate.

In 1968, for the entire Essequibo Islands district, of which Leguan formed only a part, the PNC secured only 1,623 votes and the PPP 4,221 out of a total electorate of 6,690. But only eighteen months later, in the June 1970 elections for Leguan alone, the PNC "won" with 1,814 votes out of an electorate 2,583! In this area of immense PPP support, that party "polled" only 732 votes! In the 1968 elections, the PPP had easily won more than 90 percent of the island's votes.

Significantly, the "results" showed the UF acquiring only 31 votes even though 50 voters sponsored its list of candidates.

Strong condemnation of the electoral fraud, locally and internationally, followed the announcement of the "results". Undoubtedly, the PNC improved on its rigging skills developed for the general elections one and a half years before. And as usual, officials of the police and the civil service, politically partisan towards the PNC, were not hesitant at all in aiding the cover-up of the electoral atrocities. For instance, when the PPP, on the conclusion of the elections, requested the Chief Elections Officer to provide data on the number of proxy votes that were cast in the five areas, he replied that based on the electoral regulations, he was not required to provide this information.

As a result of this outright rigging by the PNC, the PPP boycotted the rest of the local government elections held in December 1970. The PNC thus was able, through its blatant rigging process, to take full control of all the local authorities in the country.

29 August 2007