…GECOM chair says CEO will address PPP’s complaints of congestion
…will explore other public places, alternative sites
CHAIRMAN of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) Justice Claudette Singh has made it clear that there was no decision made to return to private residences, but rather for the Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield to address complaints of congestion and possibly find other public places or neutral venues.
Speaking to the Guyana Chronicle Tuesday evening following a meeting between the People’s Progressive Party and the commission on the issue of the reduction of private residences for voting, Justice Singh said the commission was holding to its decision to reduce the use of private residences. “We never agreed to go back to private residences. The PPP made complaints about congestion at polling stations and these seem meritorious and so the CEO was tasked with addressing this…” Justice Singh told the Guyana Chronicle. She said the CEO would have to meet with his returning officers in the specific areas where the PPP had raised the concerns and addressed the issue regarding congestion. “They said for example there is one school where there are several polling stations, but only one gate…so we will be trying to relocate around 3000 people from voting at that venue to other places…” Justice Singh explained. Justice Singh also rubbished claims that the commission was discriminating against the PPP and attempting to disenfranchise its supporters.
The matter of private residences as polling stations is the most recent to be taken up by political leaders as the opposition is calling for the reduction to be reversed, while the government applauds the move. It comes following a decision taken by GECOM, in principle, that private residences ought not to be used unless unavoidable. It recently received the full support of all on the commission but, mere days before elections, opposition-nominated commissioners are creating a stir about the changes. The Opposition believes that the private residences being changed to public buildings or GECOM-manned tents come primarily from their main support areas.
The Carter Center, in a preliminary statement on May 27, 2015 and under the heading ‘Location of polling stations’ stated: “Because of the lack of state establishments in some areas, 166 (or seven per cent) of these stations were located in private buildings and residences. While the establishment of polling stations on private property did not seem to negatively influence public confidence in the electoral process, The Carter Center recommends that GECOM take steps in future elections to ensure that citizens can cast their ballots in a neutral environment free from intimidation.”
Meanwhile, earlier in the month, Lowenfield had announced that there would be 2,352 polling stations, inclusive of 131 private residences, of which 91 of the private residences are in Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica). However, moving towards the ideal, GECOM is making a special effort to reduce the number of private residences used as polling places. The commission has since made the list of private-residence polling places available to political parties and they have been using their own intelligence to highlight residences with which they may have issues due to real or perceived political affiliation.
The PPP/C, however, believes that the reduction could cause congestion at some of the polling stations. This concern was raised by the party during a meeting with Chairperson of GECOM, Justice Singh, the six GECOM commissioners and the CEO, on Tuesday.
Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo subsequent to the meeting told media operatives that the PPP/C requested that the number of polling places in the aforementioned communities be increased. “An area like Mon Repos with about 7,000 voters has two polling places at one location, so we said you have to increase the number of polling places by six to 10, because it will cater for the almost 7,000 voters,” said Jagdeo.
In addition to Mon Repos, the PPP/C requested that four more polling stations be established at Foulis; one at Kildonan and one at Chesney. Jagdeo had threatened to resort to protest action if their request was not granted, but government-appointed GECOM Commissioner Vincent Alexander has since confirmed that there will be a review of the polling places.
Review of polling stations
“It doesn’t necessarily mean there will be additional polling places, it means there will be a review of the places which are said to be congested and alternative arrangements will be made, including the possibility of tenting to facilitate less congested conditions,” said Alexander in an invited comment following GECOM’s weekly statutory meeting.
According to the GECOM commissioner, there is an existing list of official polling places, but the appeal was based on specific polling places. The CEO, he said, has since been entrusted with the responsibility of addressing the concern raised by the opposition, keeping in mind that GECOM is still seeking to reduce the number of private residences being used as polling places.
Opposition-appointed GECOM Commissioner Sase Gunraj also agreed that the use of private residences should be reduced, but noted that it should not result in several thousand persons voting in one location. “While I agree with reduction or future elimination of private residences as polling stations, logistics, efficiency and accessibility by voters cannot be sacrificed in that regard…the decision to grant the additional 12 polling places was as such made,” said Gunraj.
“The decision to have this done was unanimous more or less…it was not put to a vote, but one could say it is a consensus…the CEO has to work on the list and it should be out as soon as possible…there is no timeline, but he does not have to come back to the commission, we just have to go ahead and do what we have to,” said Alexander, adding that the commission will be meeting again today.
Despite the impending adjustment, Alexander believes that GECOM is still within its deadline and there are no ‘discernable’ difficulties in terms of holding elections on March 2, 2020.
It was reported that the reduction of private residences as polling places remains important as Guyana has been affected in the past by the violent retaliation of citizens on Elections Day, who believed that a ballot box at a private residence was being compromised.
In May 2015, following the close of polls, civil unrest flared in ‘C’ Field, Sophia with the burning of vehicles outside the home of Pastor, Narine Khublall — a staunch PPP/C supporter — when reports were spread that he was storing ballot boxes on his premises. The Guyana Police Force (GPF), Guyana Defence Force (GDF) and the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) were called to the scene to calm the high emotions of electors who felt that their democratic right was being violated.
A lot of abuse
Weighing in on the issue last week, President David Granger said the elections commission is responsible for the identification of polling places and polling stations. He said, in the past, the use of private residences had proven to be a challenge. “Some of them were obscure, some of them were the houses of active political advocates and many persons, not associated with the administration at that time were disenfranchised. I am very confident that it will not happen now. I am confident that the elections commission, which is in charge of elections, will make the right decision.” the Head of State told reporters.
Prime ministerial candidate of the ruling coalition, Khemraj Ramjattan in an invited on Sunday told this newspaper that international observers to Guyana’s past elections, noticing the flaws within the electoral process, had encouraged GECOM to “ensure that citizens can cast their ballots in a neutral environment free from intimidation.” “That was the recommendation of a number of international bodies that it must be moved away from certain private residences that have specific political partisanship and we had indicated, as the Alliance For Change, when we were not in the coalition government, that indeed these things should be reduced,” he said.
“I believe — and this is just my opinion — a lot of mischief was done there, especially during the PPP’s tenure where they got a number of votes as a result. We should not be disadvantaged by that and indeed the judgement call should be left exclusively on a majority decision of GECOM.”
He said this decision includes by how many private residences should be reduced and in which areas this can be accommodated. Ramjattan said that he strongly doubts that there is any merit to the opposition’s claims that the changes are being made in “predominantly PPP/C areas,” thereby affecting the party’s support. He believes that the party foresees a loss to the APNU+AFC and is therefore clutching at anything which would stir up its traditional support. He stated: “They want provocation; they want violence in the society, because it is only when there is provocation and violence and all of that that they get back their base support and that is what they want here.” Even so, Ramjattan maintained that the decision on the matter must come from the seven-member commission and not from the interference of the PPP/C.
Meanwhile, trade unionist Lincoln Lewis, who has witnessed several of Guyana’s elections, also gave the account that skepticism regarding credible polls has been high in the past when it came to private residences. “There’s always the claim that when you do balloting at private residences, parties have been involved in shenanigans and shady business [regarding] ballot boxes,” Lewis said. “It must stop. We must move away from it. That’s as simple as it is…let us don’t go at private residences and these things; let us try as far as possible to avoid it. Efforts are being made to avoid this; to minimize it, but there are people who want to remain in that era to keep the status quo in play. You can’t have that. We have to change as we go along, we have to stop this whole process where we are encouraging agencies to continue doing the same things and getting the same results and the same criticisms.”
However, the Private Sector Commission and other PPP-aligned organisations have joined the opposition championing the return to private residences. These bodies include the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce Inc and the umbrella trade union body, FITUG.