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The Rigged Referendum of 1978

By Odeen Ishmael PhD
Guyana Journal, April 2006


The Constitution (Amendment) Bill

A general election was due to be held Guyana in 1978. Parliament was expected to be prorogued on 25 July 1978 to be followed by the election not later than 25 October the same year. Five years previously the PNC had executed wide-scale rigging which gave it a two-thirds majority in Parliament. But while Guyanese awaited an announcement of a date for the new election, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and his People’s National Congress (PNC) surprised the nation by moving to postpone the election. They did this by introducing on 1 April 1978 a Constitution (Amendment) Bill No. 8 of 1978 in Parliament with the aim of changing Article 73 of the Constitution.

The proposed Bill sought to hold a referendum which would abolish any further referendum to change the entrenched provisions of the constitution, namely, State and its Territories, the Exercise of the President’s Powers, the Composition, Sessions and Dissolution of Parliament, and the Electoral System. The Bill also proposed that any future constitutional change would be made by two-thirds parliamentary majority which the PNC held at that time.

Clearly, the overall objective was to postpone the general election due that year and to perpetuate the PNC regime in power.
Without consulting the parliamentary opposition, the PNC rushed the Bill through Parliament which approved it 10 April 1978. A subsequent procedural Bill stipulated that the referendum should be held on the 10 July 1978 on the basis of the existing voters’ list. Additional legislation was also enacted to remove the right by citizens to appeal in the Supreme Court against the referendum results.

At the time the Bill was introduced, the entire country was experiencing an on-going collapse of electricity and water services and a shortage of essential food items. The people were more concerned about these problems and paid little attention to parliamentary activities. Even though they could do little to stop the Bill from passing, by the time they realized its implications, it had already been passed by the rigged PNC majority.

Opposition to the Referendum Bill

Since the Bill intended to give the PNC full powers to change the constitution without any further involvement of the people – by having a referendum to end all future referendums – the PPP initiated efforts to unite all the opposition political parties and some trade unions and religious organizations to oppose the measure. Very quickly, these groups, with the exception of the United Force, united to form the Committee in Defence of Democracy (CDD) to coordinate national opposition to the Bill and its accompanying referendum question.

In addition to the PPP, this broad-based group included the Working Peoples’ Alliance, Peoples’ Democratic Movement, Liberator Party, Progressive Youth Organisation, Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union, Rice Producers’ Association, Women’s Progressive Organisation, Civil Liberties Action Council, Guyana Peace Council and the Organisation of Working People, Democratic Teachers’ Movement, Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha and United Sad’r Islamic Anjuman.

Soon after, another anti-Bill group, the Concerned Citizens’ Committee (CCC) was formed by a number of non-political professional groups. The members of this Committee were the Lawyers’ Committee, Architects’ Committee, Committee of Medical Practitioners, Committee of Concerned Educators, University of Guyana Staff Association, Clerical and Commercial Workers Union and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees with the Guyana Council of Churches as an observer.

Both the CDD and the CCC coordinated their activities and immediately proceeded to educate the population about the nature of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill and at the same time urged its withdrawal. The Lawyers’ Committee (of the CCC) prepared a paper summarizing the objections to the proposed legislation. The paper explained that the Bill sought to deprive the Guyanese people of their rights to approve or disapprove any new constitution in the future, noting that the requirement of the direct approval of the people to substantial alteration was most essential for a democratic constitution. It emphasized that the Bill was an attempt to get the electorate to place a blank check on the national future in the hands of a spent Parliament.

Shortly after, the Guyana Council of Churches declared that the Bill placed too much power in the hands of any parliament and it was too great a temptation for the current or future parliaments to assume more power than was appropriate.

These fears as expressed by the Lawyers’ Committee and the Guyana Council of Churches were echoed by all political and civic groups that opposed the Bill and the referendum proposal.

PNC Repression of Referendum Opponents

The PNC Government was not prepared to accept opposition to the referendum. During the first week of July 1978, in a blatant act by the government to punish dissent, it informed the Catholic Standard, the weekly newspaper of the Catholic Church and a sharp critic of the Bill, that its contract with the state-owned publishing company to print the paper was terminated with immediate effect. The state company during that period controlled the importation of newsprint and refused to sell any to the Catholic Standard whose publishers were thus forced to print the paper in a photo-stenciled format in smaller quantities.
Other incidents aimed at clamping down on dissent occurred as the referendum date drew near. The state-owned Chronicle newspaper refused to accept paid advertisements by opposition political parties announcing their political meetings. As a result, the Chairman of the Liberator Party, Dr. Makepeace Richmond, filed a writ in the Supreme Court against the newspaper claiming that such refusal violated the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

Then a peaceful picket exercise outside of the Parliament Buildings was violently attacked by thugs associated with the PNC. The leader of the Liberator Party, Dr. Ganraj Kumar, and national poet, Martin Carter, were severely beaten in the presence of policemen. That same afternoon, a meeting of the Committee in Defence of Democracy (CDD) at the St. George’s Cathedral was violently broken up by stick-wielding thugs transported in government-owned vehicles. Several persons were injured and had to be hospitalized.

Another act of intimidation occurred when four University of Guyana students studying late in the evening on the campus were forced into a vehicle by thugs and taken to the sea-wall. There their abductors severely beat them with a metal-webbed belt before a crowd of about thirty PNC supporters. After this torture, the thugs forced them to paint pro-government slogans on the sea-wall for over an hour.

As expected, despite media publicity of these incidents and the identification of some of the thugs, no one was arrested.

Stifling the Views of Opponents

On the whole, the referendum campaign was marked by the PNC supporting the proposal and all other political parties opposing it.
The government blatantly refused the anti-Bill viewpoints to be given publicity in the state-owned media which in any case ridiculed and distorted them in various “analyses”. After their press releases were ignored by the state media, the Guyana Council of Churches and the Lawyers’ Committee attempted to have these published as paid advertisements, but these were bluntly refused by both the state-owned newspaper and radio. The Prime Minister, Hamilton Green, justified this action on the grounds that “paid advertisements were inconsistent with socialism as they gave the wealthier groups in society an advantage the poorer ones do not enjoy.”

The weekly “Catholic Broadcast”, a radio program of the Catholic Church, was not aired on 21 May because it contained a discussion of the referendum. Green, in offering an excuse, said that “paid advertisements would not be allowed in connection with this matter but that provision will be made in due course for full discussion by all sections of the radio and in the press.” But as expected, this never happened.

The government also refused to consider the opposition’s request to invite a team of observers from the Caribbean to witness the referendum.

In one of its numerous statements the CDD drew attention to the fact that voters had no right of appeal to the courts after the referendum. The group also noted that many public employees, including members of the Police and the Guyana Defence Forces, were forced to sign blank proxy forms on which they were not allowed to name the person who should vote for them.

Opposition to the Bill was very strong and there was no doubt that in the event of a fair vote, people would vote solidly against the PNC government’s proposal in the referendum. In a unilateral act, the government, in preparing ballots for the referendum, assigned the symbols of a house to the “Yes” vote and a mouse to the “No” vote. Opposition groups immediately condemned this as intimidating, prejudicial, and inimical to the fair and impartial conduct of the referendum. The CDD said that choosing the symbols was unfair and discriminatory, adding that “the mouse is a symbol that the average human being finds offensive.”

With the symbols decided by the government, the PNC publicized its referendum campaign by urging people to “vote for the house”.

By and large, the anti-Bill groups could only manage to have their views widely expressed in the Mirror, the PPP newspaper which printed five days a week. But this paper was also stifled and forced to reduce its size and circulation because the government to refused to sell newsprint to its publishers. The PPP also held numerous public meetings throughout the country to inform the people about the expanding trend of the PNC dictatorship associated with the referendum Bill and the referendum itself. In some areas, the public PPP meetings were broken up violently by armed thugs associated with the ruling party.

The Boycott

Faced with the fact that the government was organizing the referendum without consulting with opposition parliamentary parties, the CDD and CCC requested a meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs, Vibert Mingo. After the Minister refused to meet with representatives of the two groups, they sent a joint letter to him setting out minimum demands considered essential for a free and fair referendum. These demands were:

1. Final counting must be done in the polling places where the votes were cast.
2. Para-military forces must not be given access to ballot boxes before, during or after voting.
3. Agents appointed by opposition parties must (i) be permitted to examine the ballot boxes prior to voting; (ii) be present throughout voting; (iii) stay with the boxes from closure until completion of counting.
4. The boxes must be properly sealed in the presence of agents after a preliminary count.
5. Lists of proxy and postal voters must be available for inspection by recognized Opposition parties at least a week before polling day.
6. Counting must be continuous and done in the presence of the above-mentioned agents.
7. The announcement of results must be made as soon as they become available and be continuous.
8. A report on the referendum must be
published within a reasonable time showing the numbers of postal, proxy and overseas votes separately.

Despite reminders, the Minister did not even reply to this letter from all the Opposition parties. With the Minister clearly unwilling to guarantee these minimum demands, both the CDD and the CCC urged the Guyanese people to boycott the referendum. The United Force, the only opposition political party outside of the CDD, also called for a boycott.

The Electoral Roll

The opposition political parties as well as the CDD and the CCC raised numerous objections over the electoral roll since they believed, with justification, that it was heavily padded. According to a population projection prepared by the United Nations Development Programme office in Guyana, the total eligible voters (above 18 years of age) was estimated at about 535,335, taking into consideration the officially registered overseas votes.

However, the official figure for the referendum was given by the government as 609,522. Interestingly, the official government figure for the total population in 1975 was 780,000. The opposition parties feared that this high electoral roll could only be arrived at by adding fictitious names to the list.

Monitoring of the Poll

For the referendum, the country was divided into 38 electoral districts, which in turn were sub-divided into 1,170 polling divisions, of which 107 were located in the residences of PNC supporters. However, the PPP claimed that it could locate only 829 polling divisions.

The government certainly promoted fears that it was preparing to rig the results of the referendum. It refused to provide to the Guyanese people even the minimal assurances about the fairness and legality of the referendum exercise. It also denied permission to international observers to be present in Guyana. As a result the CCC organized a monitoring exercise outside of polling stations on the day of the referendum.

But to do this, the CCC and the organizations within the CDD had to face many stumbling blocks. Their task was made difficult by the shortness of time and the lack of information on the numbers and addresses of polling stations. Actually, addresses of polling stations were not made public until 8 July, two days before the referendum day, and this presented the CCC with difficulties in placing external monitors and for the opposition parties to name polling agents.

Faced with these difficulties, the CCC monitors were concentrated mainly in Georgetown, and the East Coast and East Bank, Demerara. Except for two Corentyne Districts, where the CCC fielded monitors as well, the observation by this group took place mainly in a large number of areas of traditional support for the PNC.

The PPP which had polling agents posted inside most of the polling stations also was able to observe first hand the conduct of the poll and the people’s participation in the referendum.

Referendum Day

It was apparent from the early morning of 10 July that most of the voters had heeded the boycott call. There was a trickle of voters and PNC activists used motor vehicles to transport their supporters to the polling places. But even the PNC faced a rebellion from many of their own supporters who refused to participate claiming that they did not need to vote. They felt the referendum would be a walk-over victory for the government as a result of the opposition boycott.

At the polling stations, each voter was handed a ballot to chose “Yes” or “No” to the question: “Do you approve of the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill No. 8 of 1978 and published in the Official Gazette of May 13th, 1978?”

Referendum day showed very little activity. Most people stayed at home and commercial activity was unusually low. However, there was a heavy military presence on the streets and armed patrols in full battle dress moved about the city in single file. Polling stations in rural areas were almost deserted except when state-owned motor vehicles brought in groups of PNC supporters to vote.

Several incidents of violence occurred when opposition party politicians attempted to photograph vehicles used to recycle voters. The Chairman of the Liberator Party, Dr. Makepeace Richmond, and PPP parliamentarian Cyril Belgrave, were beaten by thugs and the latter had to be hospitalized.

Presiding officers at some polling station also ordered PPP polling agents to leave the buildings while others had their official credentials rejected. In some cases where these agents refused to leave, they were violently ejected by policemen and PNC activists.

Clearly, the PNC wanted to show large numbers of votes in the referendum, so panic set in an hour before the close of the poll. The activists began a frenzied transportation of PNC supporters to various polling stations where they constantly recycled their votes in the face of objections by PPP agents. But their objections were over-ruled by the presiding officers who were all activists of the PNC.

The Results

According to the CCC, the CDD and the PPP, the heavy boycott resulted in only about 14 percent of the electorate turning out to vote. However, after a period of two days during which the government claimed the votes were counted – in the absence of opposition observers – the official results declared that 71.45 percent of the electorate voted, of which 97.7 supported the referendum proposal.

There was widespread condemnation by numerous political and non-political organizations inside and outside Guyana of the blatant rigging of the referendum results. All of them agreed that the PNC regime was now fully bent in building a dictatorship in Guyana.

However, the regime quickly received congratulations from a number of Caricom governments on scoring the referendum “win” for its constitutional proposal.

On 17 July, 1978, one week after the referendum, the government, using its new power amended the constitution by its two-thirds parliamentary majority to prolong the life of Parliament and thus avoided the need for a general election. Four days after, the Parliament reconstituted itself into a Constituent Assembly to draft a new “socialist” constitution for the country. There was strong opposition by the PPP and other organizations within the CCC and the CDD to this move; the PPP itself refused to participate in the work of the Constituent Assembly.

The Constituent Assembly received submissions of constitutional proposals from a number of organizations, including some which were very friendly to the PNC, but in the end it accepted only the draft presented by the PNC, much to the dismay of the Trade Union Congress which had presented comprehensive proposals.

A reconvened Parliament in 1980 then approved by two-thirds majority this PNC draft which became the new constitution of Guyana. This new constitution created the post of an executive President with almost unlimited powers and established a system of ten regional councils while drastically reducing the role of the opposition. The government then called a general election in December 1980 and promptly rigged it to increase its proportion of the vote to almost 78 percent. Arthur Chung, the titular figure-head powerless President, then resigned and Forbes Burnham was soon after sworn in as the first executive President of Guyana under this new PNC-written constitution.

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