Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-GUYANA: General Elections Declared Null and Void 3 Years Later

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Jan 16 2001 (IPS) - No one knows exactly what will happen now that a high court judge has nullified the 1997 general elections.

In a stunning landmark decision on Monday, Justice Claudette Singh said she had found that several key institutions in the country, most notably the 65-member parliament, had acted illegally in making the possession of a voter identification card a prerequisite for voting in the elections.

As a result, she ruled that the December 1997 general elections were conducted under rules that clearly contravened the Constitution.

In previous elections, the production of a national passport or the regular national identification card was enough to ensure that an eligible voter, whose name appeared on the official scroll, was allowed to vote. But last time around, thousands of persons were denied the right to vote simply because they did not have cards issued by the elections commission.

In all, the court found that about, 30,000 persons, just under one- tenth of the total eligible voters, were denied the chance to exercise their franchise.

The judge therefore ruled that the elections were null and void because the act that made identification cards the only voting prerequisite, had breached several statutes in the Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

The ruling appears to have plunged this already racially divided former British colony into further political and constitutional turmoil about two months before new elections set for Mar. 19.

Doodnauth Singh, the man who presided over the last elections as Chairman of the National Elections Commission called the decision “unprecedented”.

“This means that Parliament and the Cabinet have been constituted illegally,” he said.

“This is unprecedented in that I have never heard in the Commonwealth of a judge declaring an entire national election as null and void. Usually they do so in a region or constituency, but not in a national election. This is unprecedented and has serious implications for the country,” said Singh, also a prominent lawyer who appeared in the case as respondent and advocate.

The petition was filed by several opposition parties in early 1998, weeks after the country was gripped by daily opposition-organised street demonstrations that necessitated the use of tear gas and pellet guns by police.

Worried that the riots and demonstrations could have spilled over into full-scale anarchy, Caribbean Community leaders forced the governing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the main opposition People’s National Congress (PNC) to sign an agreement bringing forward elections to this year instead of late 2002.

The ruling has also come at a bad time for the Bharrat Jagdeo administration. The PNC and some smaller opposition parties have been calling for an interim administration to run the country until elections in March.

The special accord had set Jan. 17, 2001 as the outer limit for elections, but the Elections Commission said it was unable to meet that deadline, and postponed the polls to Mar. 19 instead.

PNC Leader and former President Desmond Hoyte has complained that the additional two months in office will give the administration invaluable access to state resources to campaign against its political enemies.

He wants the country to be run by a caretaker administration, a suggestion dismissed as silly by legal pundits given the relatively short time span. Now that the court has voided the elections Hoyte is claiming victory and arguing that the ruling has vindicated his position that the country has been run by an illegal government.

“We are in a constitutional crisis,” said Hoyte.

In the second part of her ruling, Justice Singh said that there were dozens of very clear cases of fraud: switching around of numbers to favour one party over another, disappearances of ballot boxes and other acts of collusion by officials, but these were not enough to overturn the elections.

Close to 300 witnesses gave evidence ranging from ordinary polling day clerks to the chief elections officer. Most corroborated opposition claims that some poll forms were forged and that false entries were made on commission computers that were producing election results.

The court is due to meet again on Tuesday when Justice Singh will detail its implications for the country. One key area of concern is that voters in the upcoming elections will have to again produce special identification cards in order to vote.

“But now that the judge has ruled, it means that Parliament would have to amend the act, but Parliament is illegal and so I am not sure how it is going to be done,” said Doodnauth Singh.

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