The December 1968 General Elections: Deja vu and more, August 2006 History This Week No. 51/2006
Stabroek News
December 21, 2006

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Introduction

I decided that my last article of the year would be on the December 16, 1968 general elections since the memories of the August 28 elections still lingered. The 1968 elections were the first after our independence in May 1966 and the last before we were to gain Republican status in February 1970. It was also the first election where postal voting permitted the Guyanese "diaspora" to participate in electing the country's decision makers. That decision led to widespread accusations of elections rigging by the incumbent PNC that became more and more strident over the next 24 years. As I pored over the main newspapers of the day, The Guyana and Sunday Graphic, I was often overcome by a sense of d©j vu which was only shattered by the other realities of the 21st century. Examining some of the similarities and differences of those two elections held 38 years apart is the subject of this article.

The elections

In 1968, over 93% of the electorate exercised the franchise but in 2006 only 69% chose to do so. There were 312,319 valid votes cast then. Of these 36,475 were overseas ballots of which 34,429 or 75% were cast in favour of the incumbent PNC. Overall, the PNC received 174,339 votes equal to 30 seats; the PPP, 113,991 votes and 19 seats, the UF, 23,102 votes and four seats; the Guyana United Muslim Party (GUMP) received 899 and as in the December 1964 elections they were less than the number of rejected ballots. In 2006, six political parties contested the general elections. A total of 336,375 valid votes were cast. The incumbent PPP/C received 183,867 votes representing 36 seats; the PNC/R-IG 114,608 (almost the same number of votes gained by the PPP/C in 1968) representing 22 seats; the AFC 28,366 votes (some 5,200 more than the UF did in 1968) and five seats; GAP/ROAR 4,249 votes and one seat; TUF 2,694 votes and one seat and the JFAP 2,571 votes. The last three parties each received less votes than the number of the rejected ballots. The figures indicate that our population, due primarily to migration has grown little in the last 38 years.

The poor turnout in 2006 can be attributed to insecurity, apathy and frustration or according to one Stabroek News Editorial, the voters "are dissatisfied with our politicians and their performance, and weary of the way politics is played in Guyana." In 1968, though uncertain and apprehensive over the implications of postal/overseas voting and increased proxy voting, there was still a sense of optimism and hope and the country was generally at peace. The August 2006 elections was regarded as "free and fair" by all the parties while in 1968, the opposition PPP declared that there had been extensive manipulation and fraud since, according to Dr. C. B Jagan, the PNC knew that the PPP could not be defeated in a fair election. The leader of the UF stated: "It is better to lose with honour than to win by fraud" and added: "This elections has once again confirmed the general pattern of racial voting." D©j vu.

Elections Commission under duress

How many of us who were already electors or became eligible to vote at the December 1968 elections remember that identification cards were supposed to have been used on polling day? The ID card debacle was one of the very many problems faced by Chief Election Officer, Richard Butler and the Chairman, Sir Donald Jackson. First, dozens of spoilt photographs had to be retaken and there were accusations by the opposition of discrimination as to whose photographs were to be retaken and from what districts. By November 10, the leader of the opposition insisted that the ID cards should be made available at least two weeks before polling day. Over the next few weeks the Guyanese electorate were bemused and confused by the declarations and counter declarations of the Elections Commission and the Minister of Home Affairs. On November 15, one month before the elections, Minister Llewellyn John declared that the decision had been taken that persons would be allowed to vote without ID cards. Then on December 9, he declared that ID cards would be available at the polling stations for those who had not received theirs. On December 13, the Elections Commission recommended to the government that IDs should not be used on polling day, but the next day the Minister stated categorically that ID cards had to be used. Eventually of course they were not. It was not therefore surprising when the UF representative on the Elections Commission, Mr. W.O. Fraser resigned citing "frustration" and "impotence" hindering his performance as a member of the commission. D©j vu. Mr. Fielden Singh, by then leader of the UF declared that he had no intention of replacing Mr. Fraser. He complained to the Chairman about the Commission's "inability" and "unwillingness" to deal with matters in connection with elections.

The above pronouncements were ultimately made not only because of frustration over the confusion with the ID cards but also dissatisfaction over the passing in late October of Ordinance no. 6 1968, the Representation of the People (Adaptation and Modification of Laws) Act of 1968. It permitted postal voting by Guyanese residents overseas, the alphabetical listing of candidates and the increase of proxies from 2 to 3 per person. Both the PPP and the UF claimed that these were to be the mechanisms whereby the government would rig the elections.

The leader of the opposition had stated categorically that even under Proportional Representation "We cannot be defeated in an election restricted to votes in Guyana." Given the growth rate among the different groups and past voting trends, the statement was a clear acceptance and expectation of voting along racial lines. It was evident that the PM also accepted this. As early as January 1968, at a meeting in Washington D C with Mr. Robert M. Sayre, Acting Inter-American Affairs Secretary he declared that in an election he might "pick up 3% to 4% of East Indian votes" but he was counting "heavily" on the overseas ballots. It would seem that while the bill to permit overseas voting was brought to parliament only a couple of months prior to the election, it had been an election strategy planed long in advance.

The electoral legislation proved to be the final "irreconcilable difference" that led to the dissolution of the contentious four year relationship between the PNC and the UF. At the end of the first day's debate, Peter D'aguiar and the three other UF members crossed the floor. The night before, the Deputy Speaker and UF member, Rupert Tello had crossed the floor. The "shenanigans" that occurred that day in our National Assembly, in hindsight, make distasteful but hilarious reading. Eventually, following the departure of both the PPP and the UF, the bill was passed 27-0. In early November, Charles Christopher Casato and Daniel Premdas filed an 18 point writ against the Attorney General and members of the Elections Commission over certain sections of the National Registration Act of 1967. It declared that the compilation of electoral lists for elections to the National Assembly was illegal and unconstitutional. The plaintiffs sought an injunction restraining the Chief Election Officer from conducting, holding or administering any elections to the National Assembly or from accepting nominations and conducting balloting. They also sought declarations, among others, that the registration of the overseas electors was illegal, that a ballot marked outside of Guyana by a person named in any list was illegal as was any voting by an elector by proxy for elections to the National Assembly. The writ was lost and the rest, as they say, is history.

Those harmful election posters

In the run up to the August elections, we were bombarded by increasingly negative ads and on occasion downright insensitive, distasteful bordering on libellous television advertisements. It was therefore with considerable interest that I read the headline in the Sunday Graphic, November 17, 1968: "Mrs. Jagan talks of harmful PNC posters." Posters and papers had been obtained which she declared "are most harmful and vicious in view of the divisions which already exist in the society." They included maintaining enthusiasm in PNC areas; Building self help, self confidence and motivation; positive campaigning and the role of research and propaganda in an election campaign. It was against the content of the last that the greatest objections were raised. Some of what the PNC activists were advised to do reads: Create anxiety and fear, racial fear religious fear, fear of security and anxiety for the future well being of the family must be engendered in order to interest the specific group of individuals. Associate the PNC cause with certain symbols, with values and attitudes dear to the heart of people; home, family, race, religion, survival, peace, economic prosperity. Show off the party's strength by quoting examples of persons who have deserted the other parties and have the wisdom to join the camp of the PNC."

The PNC's instructions were compared to the "tactics used by Adolf Hitler and his fascist hordes." Legal advice was sought and an investigation contemplated on the "implications of the type of propaganda used by the PNC" with a view to reporting to the Director of Public Prosecu-tions.

In light of the results of the past three general elections, I pondered with wry amusement whether the then incumbent PNC had destroyed all the copies which were therefore unavailable to the present PNCR-1G or the opposition PPP had kept theirs and perhaps by 1997, the PPP/C began implementing its suggestions.

What say you Guyana? A Happy Xmas to all.