The 1980 Guyana Elections – Virtual army coup kept PNC in power

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December 15, 1980 will remain as one of the blackest days experienced by the Guyanese people. It was on this day the regime of the People's National Congress (PNC), aided by the military forces, concluded its hat trick of crudely rigged elections, thus maintaining itself in power against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Guyana.

The fraudulent 1980 elections came after the PNC prepared and introduced a constitutional machinery which rapidly eroded the democratic rights of the people.

Because of heavy mismanagement and corruption within the ranks of the PNC, the country was plunged into a serious political, economic and social crisis. Consequently, the PNC knew by 1978, five years after it had rigged itself a two-thirds majority in Parliament, that it had no hope of winning any fairly conducted election; especially more so with the growing support enjoyed by the People’s Progressive party (PPP), and to some extent, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) which was also undermining the PNC power base in the rural areas.

By this time, the PNC had become so power-drunk that it did not even entertain the proposals put forward by the PPP for the establishment of a national patriotic front government of all democratic and leftist forces in order to pull the nation out of the political and economic morass C the result of a pro- imperialist policy despite high sounding “socialist” slogans by the PNC C into which it has been rapidly sinking.

The rigged referendum

From a PNC standpoint, general elections due in 1978 had to be held back. It waited until early 1978 to announce that there was need for a new constitution, to place power in the hands of Guyanese, and to bring about a change to socialism. The PPP, however, pointed out that there was no need to have a new constitution, since there was nothing in the old constitution to prevent socialist legislation from being enacted.

However, the PNC regime proposed a referendum by which the electorate was asked to say that instead of referendum, a two thirds majority in Parliament should carry out the process of changing the constitution or any part of it. The PPP, the WPA, and other political and social groups called a boycott of the referendum with the effect that only 10 to 15 percent of the electorate voted. The PNC declared results, nevertheless, claimed that 71 percent cast their votes, and of this, 98 percent supported the PNC proposal!

Armed with this new rigged power, the PNC postponed the 1978 general elections, extended the life of Parliament by 15 months, and announced the formation of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. Members of Parliament, representatives of religious groups and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) were included as members of the Constituent Assembly. However, the PPP refused to participate while the Guyana Council of Churches declined to send representatives. The PNC then again displayed its arrogance by designating, through Parliament, certain minority religious groupings as accredited representatives of the Christian Church. Except for the two man rightist United Force (UF) team, the PNC controlled the entire Constituent Assembly.

Numerous memoranda were submitted to the Constituent Assembly, but when the Assembly finally concluded its work, it rejected all except the draft submitted by the PNC. Those rejected in totality included one submitted by the TUC, which, interestingly, (because its leadership was PNC-controlled), still gave unilateral support to the PNC in the 1980 elections.

The new constitution was eventually promulgated in October 1980, with PNC leader Forbes Burnham sworn in as Executive President. Shortly after, Burnham announced that elections would be held on December 15, 1980. These were to be two fold. In addition to general elections, political parties were asked to submit candidates for regional elections to be held in each of ten designated regions. Those elected in each region were to form a ARegional Democratic Council@. The elections were to be held on the basis of proportional representation; and the leader of the winning party in the general elections was to become the Executive President.

According to the new constitution, the President would not be a Member of Parliament even though he would hold sweeping and supreme powers over all constitutional agencies. Parliament itself would consist of 65 members, made up of 53 elected, one each nominated from the 10 regions, and two nominated from the National Congress of Local Democratic Organs. This latter body would be made up of two nominated representatives from each of the ten regions. Thus, 12 members were to be nominated, reminiscent of government in the colonial period. In addition, technocrat Ministers and technocrat Parliamentary Secretaries would also be designated Members of Parliament, but without voting rights.

Blocking one-party state

Speculation was rife as to the reaction of the opposition parties to the forthcoming elections. The WPA decided almost immediately on a boycott. The minuscule right-wing Vanguard for Liberation and Democracy (VLD) decided likewise and both parties began a campaign urging Guyanese to boycott the polls. The WPA and VLD maintained that their boycott call was due to the PNC's refusal to meet minimum conditions far free and fair elections, as jointly demanded by the PPP, WPA and VLD. These demands, made in August 1980, included the reconstitution of the Elections Commission with the Chairman being a person of regional or international standing; the Commission must be directly responsible for all stages of the elections, including the appointing of elections officials; the abolition of overseas voting except by Guyanese who would be temporarily away on duty; ending postal voting; limitation of proxies; preliminary counting of votes in each polling district at the end of the poll; and all agents of opposition parties to accompany ballot boxes at all times.

The PPP refrained from making an immediate announcement until its membership in the various regions discussed whether or not participation in general elections was necessary at this stage of the political struggle. Clearly, it felt that a revolutionary situation had not yet arisen, and that despite its unpopularity, the PNC was in full control of the state machinery. Consequently, it was important that the PPP should participate to block the setting up of a one party state.

On October 20, 1980 the PPP, after consulting its membership at regional conferences, eventually announced that it would participate in the elections despite the expected rigging. The PPP pointed out that its decision was based on a strict and sober appraisal of the balance of class forces in Guyana as well as the experience of revolutionary movements throughout the world. The Party explained that it believed that it must utilize every forum without exception, and every institution, however corrupt, to expose the reactionary minority PNC regime, and to raise the ideological political consciousness of the masses so as to advance the cause of the revolution. It concluded that "the battle would be won by the people of Guyana as elsewhere, by whatever means they are forced to adopt. In this period the PPP finds it necessary to continue its revolutionary work outside as well as inside the central and local parliamentary arenas, to expose PNC ideological demagogy and state bureaucratic and co operative capitalism masquerading as socialism, and to prepare the way for the decisive battle to end, once and for all, PNC despotism and minority rule".

In the meanwhile, the PNC had begun its campaign, using the radio and the state owned Chronicle newspaper. Its campaign was centred on attacking the PPP and its leaders. Its public meetings were poorly attended and the state transportation services were commandeered to ferry people to builds up crowds. On the other hand, massive crowds voluntarily turned up at PPP meetings all over Guyana and expressed publicly full confidence in its leaders. No doubt the masses welcomed the active struggle of the PPP against the PNC and rejected the boycott calls of other opposition groupings.

The campaign was, however, not without violence. PNC thugs, aided by the police, broke up some public meetings of the PPP. In one incident, supporters of the PPP who defended a meeting from the thugs were arrested by the police who then allowed the thugs to savagely beat them. These PPP supporters, including two candidates, in the elections, were then placed on trumped up charges by the police.

Electoral powers usurped

Meanwhile, the powers of the Elections Commission were rapidly usurped, and the Chief Elections Officer, a regime appointee, published the electoral roll. Although the preliminary lists of voters were required by law to be posted up in all areas of Guyana, this deliberately was not done. In addition, the period of time allocated for claims and objections was totally inadequate, especially in view of the fact that persons who had a right to be registered as voters had no opportunity to check the lists to see if their names were in fact recorded.

As happened in the 1968 and 1973 rigged elections, large numbers of bogus names appeared, and there were many cases of multiple registration. Names of dead people were also on the list, including a number of those who perished in the murder suicide drama at Jonestown in November 1979.

Faced with continuous demands by the PPP for the revised voters’ list, the Chief Elections Officer announced that 111,500 names were removed from the preliminary list, even though that list of deletions was not given to the Party.

There was also massive bungling of the deletion process. For example, in Region 8 (Rupununi) where the preliminary list showed just over 5,000 voters, it was announced that 6,000 names were deleted! This was mathematically impossible. And in Region 10 (with the bauxite town of Linden as the main urban area) 16,000 names were deleted! After these deletions, 29,379 names were added to the national voters’ list.

The overseas list of 47,000 names was also packed with bogus names, and the addresses were totally garbled and incomprehensible.

It was clear that it would have been physically impossible to update the elections list by deleting 111,500 names and adding 29,379 names in the two weeks between publication of the preliminary list on October 28 and the closing date for objections on November 10. The PPP was handed the preliminary list on November 7, giving it a mere three days to check 512,500 names!

At a meeting with the Elections Commission on December 10 the PPP demanded the overseas list, and lists of proxy and postal voters. The Party also called upon the acting Chairman of the Commission, Harry Bollers, to issue directions permitting polling agents of the ruling and opposition parties to accompany the ballot boxes in the vehicles transporting the said boxes to the counting centres. However, Bollers, a High Court judge, refused to accede to these requests. In regard to the last stated demand, Bollers said that the matter was left solely in the hands of the district returning officers on whether or not they were willing to allow polling agents to accompany the boxes.

In a comment after the meeting, PPP General Secretary, Cheddi Jagan, charged that both the Elections Commission and the Chief Elections Officer were passing the buck to each other. He stated that the regime had made the Chief Elections Officer into an independent official with statutory powers, rather than having him functioning under the Elections Commission as the constitution envisaged.

Arrival of observer team

Responding to a PNC boast that anyone was free to come to Guyana to observe the elections, an international team of observers arrived in the country about a week before elections day. The team was headed by Lord Avebury of Britain who had served as an official observer in the 1978 rigged Bolivian elections. It also included Lord Chitnis, also of Britain, who served as official observer at interim elections in Zimbabwe in 1979, and in the Zimbabwe elections in 1980. Other members of the team included prominent personalities from the Caribbean, Canada and the United States of America.

From the moment the team arrived, its members were abused and harassed by the regime who tried to deny them access to vital information. On elections day itself, several of them, including Lord Avebury, were arrested by the Police. Notes, films and tapes were confiscated.

Polling day itself saw a massive turn-out of voters in the rural areas, particularly those with traditional PPP loyalties. In the urban area, particularly Georgetown and Linden, once PNC strongholds, voting was down to a trickle, since the people in those areas had already become disillusioned with the PNC.

Massive irregularities were observed throughout the day, and large numbers of eligible voters were denied the right to vote in one way or the other. Proxy voting and postal voting were heavily abused at the expense of eligible voters. Other voters were disenfranchised because of minor clerical errors in the list. Some of them were even told that they were dead!

Among other irregularities were the multiple registration of voters on different lists; deliberate stalling of the processing of votes; prevention of inspection of the ballot boxes by opposition agents; and the ejection of opposition agents from polling stations in some districts. In addition, unlisted PNC supporters were allowed to vote, while in some PPP strongholds the returning officers refused to exercise their discretion to allow unlisted persons to vote even when they had satisfactory proof of their identities. Further, it must be mentioned, many polling stations were located in the private residences of PNC activists, and in one case, of a PNC candidate; while the entire staff of the polling process were PNC activists.

Military takeover

At the close of the poll a virtual military coup occurred. A combined force of the military, police and PNC thugs, working in unison, took charge of the ballot boxes in a massive display of military might designed to defeat the will of the people and maintain the PNC in power. PPP polling agents were not allowed to accompany the ballot boxes. The PPP elections agent and counting agents, plus the PPP member on the Elections Commission, were prevented at gunpoint from entering counting stations.

In Region 4, (the largest region which includes the capital city Georgetown), it was not until 13 hours after voting ended that the PPP counting agents and those from the other opposition parties were told that they could enter the central counting station. The maximum time it would have taken for all ballot boxes of the region to reach the counting place was four hours. It was obvious that the PNC regime, unable to win at the polls, spent over 13 hours tampering with the ballot boxes and doctoring the votes. And instead of counting the people's votes, the corrupt regime counted the bogus ballots it had stuffed in the boxes.

The rigged results were a foregone conclusion. The PNC gave itself 77 per cent of the votes or 41 seats in Parliament. (It even took for itself 98 percent of the overseas votes, even though overseas Guyanese left the country to escape hardships created by the PNC)! The PPP, the real majority party, was given 19 per cent of the total, or 10 Parliamentary seats. The right wing UF was given the rest and was allocated 2 seats. As a result of the rigging the PNC also seized power in all the ten regions. (The PPP had contested in 8 regions, while the UF contested in only one). The remaining 12 nominated Parliamentary seats pushed the PNC total to 53.

PPP claims success

On December 16, the day after the elections, the international team of observers issued a statement by which it condemned the electoral process, giving examples of the manner in which the elections were rigged. The statement concluded "that the worst fears expressed by the Guyanese people regarding the violation of the electoral process have been confirmed."

The PNC gloated over its “victory” and bragged that it had decimated the PPP in its traditional strongholds. And despite the worldwide publicity of the international observers’ report that the elections were totally fraudulent, no criticisms were issued by the major western powers, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Instead, they, like the Caricom countries, sent messages of hearty congratulations to Burnham. Apparently, in the existing Cold War situation, they had no objections to rigged elections as long as they served the purpose of keeping out the “communist” PPP from power.

In a statement following the elections, the PPP, which claimed victory at the polls, urged the Guyanese masses to stride forward in confidence in 1981, and to lift their heads high in the face of adversity. The Guyanese people, the statement noted, must not even think of despairing, and must pledge themselves to struggle harder so that the dawn of people's power can draw nearer.

The PPP's decision to content the elections was vindicated by the militant response its stand engendered among the people for free and fair elections, by confirming and strengthening the internal isolation of the PNC, and by demonstrating to the international community the unpopularity of the PNC and its fraudulent manipulation of the electoral process which would contribute to its international isolation. Significantly, the Caribbean Council of Churches= representative on the international team of observers, Dr. Ramesh Deosarran, stated that the decision of the PPP to contest the elections provided the team with an open opportunity to monitor the polls.

The struggle for democracy

The PPP, in analysing the effects of the electoral fraud, saw Guyana entering into an even more uncertain future. The Party felt that as long as the corrupt PNC regime remained in power for the benefit off its elite and its international backers, conditions would continue to worsen. It stated that as social conditions deteriorate, contradictions between the masses and the regime would sharpen. The unpopular PNC regime, it predicted, would resort more and more to police and army methods in solving political and industrial problems, thereby sowing the seeds of its own eventual demise.

There was a general feeling among Guyanese that the PPP won the 1980 general and regional elections by a clear majority, but that a virtual military coup took place when the army took control of the ballot boxes and ensured the PNC being returned to power. The PNC, at the same time, had its reasons for not wanting an open military dictatorship. It preferred instead to have a “parliamentary democratic” facade which, however, fooled no one as to its unrepresentative nature.

The majority of the Guyanese people were also of the firm opinion that the immediate solution to the grinding problems in Guyana, therefore, was for them to win free and fair elections and the establishment of democratic government. For this, they had to struggle for another 12 years.

26 June 2005