The 1973 Rigged Election
The PNC Two-thirds Majority
By Odeen Ishmael PhD
Guyana Journal, May 2006
On 6 March 1973, the PNC Government announced that there would be a national registration of all Guyanese who would be 14 years and over on September 30, 1973. It also stated that out of this registration process, the electoral list would be compiled for the general elections to be held later in the year.
Both the parliamentary opposition parties (PPP and United Force) protested that the period of two hours each day, during 15-21 March, was inadequate for the registration of Guyanese in Guyana. The period allowed for overseas registration (15-31 March) was even more insufficient since the opposition parties did not have enough time to alert their supporters abroad. And to deliberately place obstacles in the way of these parties, the Government did not state the location of the registration centers in foreign countries
The PNC Government ignored all protests and appeals for more time and proceeded with the registration and preparation of the electoral lists. For this task, as happened in 1968, it again resorted to placing partisan officials in complete charge of the registration and election machinery.
The actual registration in Guyana was conducted in a deliberate manner to frustrate opposition supporters. During the national registration period, gross irregularities occurred in the registration of youths heavy registration in PNC areas of strength and low registration in PPP areas.
Among the strategies applied in areas where the PNC had little support were the absence or non-attendance of the registration officers and delays in dealing with each registrant. Persons who failed to be registered meant that they would not be on the electoral lists and could not vote in the elections due for that year.
Efforts by way of motions in the National Assembly to ensure that the registration exercise was operated democratically also failed. One motion on 25 April calling for the annulment of the registration regulations was simply ignored
On the same day the Government announced the plan for national registration, the PPP had tabled a motion in the National Assembly calling for the vote to be given to 18-year-olds. However, the PNC Government refused to debate the motion. This refusal and the deliberate actions to frustrate registration of young opposition supporters drew this statement from the PPP in March 1973:
It would seem that the exercise has been carried out so as to permit mainly PNC youths to be registered. After this was accomplished and a preponderance of the PNC youths clearly established, the government will most likely reduce the voting age to 18. It will then put on the pose of being progressive. . . .
This was exactly what eventually happened. In May, the PNC introduced a constitutional motion in the National Assembly to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18, a principle the PPP supported. But because the PNC Government refused to address the problems regarding registration of opposition supporters, the PPP refused to support the motion which was defeated since it failed to obtain the two-thirds majority to amend the constitution.
The PNC, thus blocked, then began to use the postal vote illegally forging some 20,000 postal vote applications. Some of the postal votes were subsequently used in the general election to cast votes for dead and non-existent voters. The others were also used to defraud legitimate voters who were denied their right to cast their votes on election day. Despite the failure of the constitutional motion, the PNC regime deliberately proceeded to flout the constitution by putting 18-year-olds on the electoral lists. Shortly after the date of the election was announced a number of Guyanese teenagers resident in Trinidad were sent their ballot papers by post from the office of Guyanas resident representative. When this was exposed by the PPP, the Chief Elections Officer said it was a mistake.
Opposition parties meetings with Elections Commission
The PPP and the other two opposition parties the Liberator Party (LP), and the Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM) led by a former Minister of Home Affairs in the PNC government were naturally very much concerned over the irregularities in the registration exercise and also in the administration of the forthcoming election. As a result, they held several joint and separate meetings with the Elections Commission requesting it to exercise its functions of general direction and supervision over the registration of electors and the administrative conduct of the elections. The parties asked the chairman of the Commission, Sir Donald Jackson, to take action to ensure impartiality, fairness and compliance with the provisions of the constitution.
Fearing tampering of the boxes, the opposition parties, while fighting against all the forms of electoral fraud, concentrated on the security of the ballot boxes. They were particularly anxious to ensure that party representatives should be allowed to affix fool-proof seals around the ballot boxes at the close of the poll, and that these representatives would be allowed to accompany the ballot boxes to the official counting places and to keep them in sight at all times until counting commenced. They reminded Jackson, who had been chairman also during the 1968 election, of instances of the electoral fraud that took place on that occasion.
Jackson informed the opposition representatives that the Commission had no power to take any of the actions requested; he said he had sought unsuccessfully to obtain guidelines setting out the powers which he had felt necessary for the Commission to have. He added that the Commission had no control over the preparation of the electoral lists and said he had requested a copy.
Regarding requests for opposition representatives to affix fool-proof seals on ballot boxes and to accompany them to the counting center, Jackson said he would transmit those proposals to the Minister of Home Affairs. The Minister, who was a PNC candidate in the elections, replied that it was impossible, because of unavailable space, to allow polling agents of political parties to accompany the ballot boxes.
Since the security of the ballot boxes was crucial to free and fair elections, the three opposition parties then proposed to the Elections Commission that one polling agent representing them should be chosen to accompany each ballot box. They stated in a letter to Jackson: We feel that the Commission would agree to this proposal to ensure the secrecy of the ballot since its implementation is in no way contrary to any existing law or regulation. Jackson never replied.
At another meeting Jackson had with the PPP, the Chairman of the Commission gave the Partys representatives a set of electoral lists which, he claimed, contained the names of 18-year-olds. He explained that the district electoral officers were in the process of removing the names of 18-year-olds from the list. After this meeting, the other opposition political parties were also provided with similar lists.
A final attempt to ensure free and fair elections ended with the rejection by the High Court of an injunction to prevent overseas and postal voting. And during the final meeting of the National Assembly, the PPP tabled a last-minute motion to annul postal voting, but the Speaker refused to allow any debate on it.
Worsening economic and political situation
The general elections were eventually fixed for 16 July 1973, a period when Guyana was experiencing a worsening economic situation. Growing disenchantment by former PNC supporters and rising resentment from the rest of the population were accelerated because of the startling rise in unemployment, now estimated to be 30 to 35 percent, the rising cost of living and the decline in the economic position of the small farmers brought on by governments neglect and victimization because of their support for the PPP.
There were also widespread political and racial discrimination, and erosion of civil liberties, including denial of passports, police harassment and searches without warrants and restrictions on press freedom.
But what caused the greatest alarm was the PNCs pre-election declaration that it would secure a two-thirds majority of the seats. This immediately caused a strong feeling of fear of further abuse of power among the population, including PNC supporters. This was revealed in house to house canvassing by the PPP in Georgetown, generally regarded as a stronghold of the PNC, where large numbers of voters stated firmly that they did not intend to vote.
To justify its two-thirds victory, the PNC embarked on an extensive pre-election propaganda campaign claiming that the PPP had lost support and had become irrelevant.
Election day itself was peaceful with a heavy turnout in the rural areas where the PPP enjoyed massive support. The Georgetown area did not see this enthusiasm; the 8 electoral districts in the capital showed the lowest turnout of voters about 20 percent lower than in the countryside.
There were a few incidents in which PPP polling agents were refused entry into polling places by the election officers who were mainly partisan PNC supporters. Also, hundreds of PPP supporters who waited hours in queues to vote were turned away by the presiding officers who told them that they had already voted by post or proxy. These persons protested that they never applied to vote by proxy or post and that they did not receive any postal ballots.
Then late in the afternoon, many young PNC supporters without identification cards and who whose names were not on the list as voters were permitted to vote despite objections from the PPP polling agents. As a result more votes were cast in some polling centers than electors on the list.
But despite all of this, the unpopular PNC realized by mid-afternoon that even the massive use of the proxy, overseas, and postal voting was no guarantee for its return to power. It then instituted its back-up plan to deploy the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) soldiers to take control of the ballot boxes to ensure a PNC two-thirds majority.
When voting closed at 6 p.m., the majority of the PPP polling agents were not permitted to affix their seals on the ballot boxes by the presiding officers. And almost immediately, many of the polling agents of the opposition parties were forced out of the polling stations at gun point by policemen and GDF soldiers while others were not allowed to observe the sealing of the ballot boxes by the presiding officers. In addition, the GDF soldiers and armed police forcibly prevented opposition polling agents to follow behind the vehicles transporting the ballot boxes. Only in Georgetown were opposition agents allowed to accompany the ballot boxes to the national counting center at the Government Technical Institute.
Seeing the sudden movements of GDF vehicles at the polling centers, large numbers of people gathered near the polling centers in the areas of PPP strength and looked on in dismay as the GDF soldiers commandeered the ballot boxes. In anger, they protested noisily the action of the solders and immediately expressed fears that the votes would be rigged. At No. 63 Village on the Corentyne, the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing 45-year-old Parmanand Bholanauth and wounding several others. Jagan Ramessar, a 17-year old youth was seriously wounded during the shooting, but instead of taking him to hospital, the police and GDF soldier transported him to the No. 51 Police Station where they refused to provide him with medical attention. He died there after he was further physically brutalized by the police and soldiers. Bholanauth and Ramessar soon after became popularly known as the Ballot-box martyrs.
The rigging activities
Members of the GDF took control of the ballot boxes in all polling centers outside of Georgetown and, contrary to the election regulations, transported them to their headquarters in Thomas Lands, Georgetown where they were kept overnight, and in some cases for more than 36 hours. There PNC operatives worked throughout that period to switch previously prepared ballot boxes with votes supporting the PNC or to empty the official ballot boxes and stuff them with fresh fraudulently marked ballots overwhelmingly in favor of the PNC.
The pattern of fraud emerged almost immediately after the poll ended. Ballot boxes for the Vreed-en-Hoop district crossed the Demerara River at 10 p.m. on 16 July, arriving in Georgetown some 15 minutes later. But the boxes did not arrive at the counting center until five and a half hours later! And then some of the keys for the ballot boxes could not be found. The boxes for Corentyne East did not arrive at the counting centre until 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 17 July, twenty-three and a half hours after the close of poll. Here again, keys for many boxes were also missing while some boxes were not sealed.
Ballot boxes from the East Coast Demerara electoral districts were finally delivered to the counting center by GDF soldiers at 1:30 p.m. on 17 July, eighteen and a half hours after the polls closed.
The boxes from the North-West District, which were transported by airplane, arrived 47 hours after the close of poll. Six ballot box keys were missing and when these boxes were broken open, twenty-one wads of ballot papers, some wrapped with rubber bands and others bound with paper clips were found inside. All were marked for the PNC. Two counting agents objected strongly drawing the returning officers attention to this unusual occurrence. They were immediately told that if they continued to protest the police would be called to eject them! This was how the PNC gave itself a 550 per cent increase over its 1968 votes in that district.
At the Canals Polder Electoral District, where the PPP had a majority in all the elections from 1953 to 1968, its votes went down four times and those of the PNC doubled. The PPP polling agent at one of the polling centers had objected during the voting exercise that the ballot-papers were being officially stamped on the inside instead of the outside. He was so concerned, fearing that the ballots would be declared invalid, that he made written notes that the ballots were being stamped on the inside. He also recorded the names of voters inside the station as well as the police constable who was on duty. In addition, as evidence of the fact, he obtained the signatures of the polling agents for all the parties, including the PNC, that this event had in fact taken place.
When the counting took place much later, the PPP counting agent, equipped with the document, kept an eye out for the particular box, No. 300. When it was counted, all 511 ballots were stamped on the outside and every single ballot was marked for the PNC!
The pattern was the same throughout. Ballot boxes, on arrival at the counting center from the GDF headquarters were found to be inadequately sealed, or not at all. Keys were missing or mixed up and there were numerous cases where the number of votes counted did not tally with the number cast. The mixed-up and missing keys for the ballot boxes apparently occurred when the keys were taken out of their sealed envelopes and used to open the ballot boxes, and then placed in the wrong envelopes afterwards.
During the counting process, at which representatives of the opposition parties were present, numerous irregularities were observed. In many cases, the ballots in the boxes did not correspond with the figures stated on the returns by the presiding officers. A large number of boxes had unsealed, exposed slots while others did not carry the seals of the opposition parties polling agents.
There was also obvious fraud with the postal voting. One box containing the postal ballots for an East Demerara district did not have the seal of the Chief Election Officer or any other person connected with the election. The box contained more envelopes with ballots than should have been placed in it. Five of the envelopes contained not only the ballots as required by law but also the declaration of identity which was not signed by anyone. It meant therefore that postal ballots were marked by persons claiming to be the voters who were not identified.
The law dealing with postal voting required the Chief Election Officer or his assistants to ensure that the declaration of identity which was not to be enclosed in the same envelope with the ballot be signed before a postal ballot is cast. Undoubtedly, from what took place, the law dealing with postal voting was not observed in the sending out and the casting of postal ballots.
The overseas votes were also massively manipulated. In view of the wide exposé of the padding of the overseas lists, the Government drastically reduced the number of names on the overseas list from 68,597 in 1968 to 34,801 in 1973. But even this list was rigged as proven by Granada Television of the United Kingdom which, in its investigative reporting, showed that there were over 8,000 bogus names on the list. The final results gave the PNC 98 percent of the overseas votes!
The final count gave the PNC its two-thirds majority. So angry were the voters that there were countrywide demonstrations and protests. The security forces continued their harassment of PPP supporters as they did even before the elections and more than 400 persons were arrested. To further counter such protests, the PNC soon after re-enacted the preventative detention law.
The result of the fraudulent election officially gave the ruling PNC 37 seats, PPP 26.5 percent 14, Liberator Party (LP) 2, and Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM), no seat, in the 53 Member National Assembly. The PNC obtained 243,803 votes or 70.1 percent of the votes cast; the PPP 92,374 votes or 26.5 percent; the LP 9,580 votes or 2.75 percent; and the PDM 2,053 votes or 0.6 percent. There were 1,766 spoilt votes.
All three opposition parties rejected these figures and in a joint statement declared that the election had been rigged. The two opposition parties which had been allocated seats, namely, the PPP and the LP (which was a coalition, formed a few weeks before the election of a new party of that name with the older United Force) stated that in protest they would not take up their seats in Parliament. But two United Force members on the LP list decided to reject the party decision and to take up their seats, and declared that they were UF representatives. One of the two, Marcellus Fielden Singh, officially declaring himself as a UF Member of Parliament, was soon after appointed Leader of the Opposition. Guyana thus became unique in having parliamentary representatives from a political party that never contested an election.