November 11, 2001
By Raffique Shah
SOMETHING is very rotten deep inside the belly of the Elections and Boundaries Commission. This seems to be clear to all but the EBC commissioners and senior personnel, like Chief Elections Officer Howard Cayenne, who insist that their new lists of electors are as close to clean as we can possibly get. Yet, simple scrutiny of several lists has revealed suspicious omissions or inclusions of names in identifiable streets. The irregularities are so glaring, and the EBC's responses so dismissive, I fear that if people who have strong political ties feel that the results of the December 10 general election exercise are tainted, we could face an upheaval of horrendous proportions.
I shall not dwell of the allegations of corruption in the last general election, or on the fact that curiously, of the scores of persons charged with election-related offences, only two (as far as I know) have so far faced the courts. It might be interesting to find out what's the status of others who are still facing charges: will they be allowed to vote in the upcoming election, and if the answer is yes, will it be in the constituencies in which it is alleged they committed the offences? But that’s the least of the problems that face us on the eve of the snap election.
When Prime Minister Basdeo Panday called on President Arthur Robinson to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections, President Robinson asked the EBC if it was ready with its revised lists for an election. The EBC, within 48 hours, said it was. And so President Robinson did his duty and dissolved Parliament. What needs to be asked is whether the EBC misled the President, and by extension, the country. Because if the EBC knew it was not fully prepared, it ought to have advised the President accordingly, and he, in turn, would have informed the Prime Minister of the situation.
The EBC was in the process of completing an exercise that supposedly targeted every elector in the country at the time the PM called the election. There were conflicting signals from the commission as to whether that exercise was completed at the time the President was called upon to make a decision. The EBC field workers did not visit every home or elector or potential elector. I say this with authority since on the short street where I live, I know the person took information from minors, and he failed to visit other houses because he was afraid of dogs. And based on complaints I’ve heard from numerous persons who are eligible to vote, they, too, never saw the EBC field personnel. Still, Oswald Wilson and his fellow commissioners told the President they were ready for an election.
Some of the evidence that suggests otherwise is damning. PNM senator Glenda Morean complained that her name does not appear on the list for the area in which she currently resides—that in spite of her having informed the EBC of her change of address. So if a prominent attorney like her has been disenfranchised, what of ordinary, faceless or semi-literate people? Colm Imbert, the PNM candidate for Diego Martin East, explained that he tried to get the revised list for his constituency since last Monday, the day on which it was said to be ready. He never got it until Wednesday—and he has only until next Tuesday to check through 20,000 names for accuracy or irregularities. Even if he (and other candidates who are in a similar position) hires a huge staff, the task is near impossible.
Even so, though, he said he had focused on a few select streets or districts and discovered some disturbing data. In one street in Paramin where there are around 15 homes and maybe 50 voters, 170 electors are listed. In another in Moka, only 12 names of some 60 electors appear on the list. And although Finance Minister Gerald YetMing said he informed the EBC about his change of address from Maraval to Westmoorings, his name still appears on the Maraval list. Further, some 3,000 names per constituency, I am told, have been removed from the lists. But the names of dead persons and citizens who have long migrated still appear as valid electors. And, as happened last year, I understand that several charter flights from Toronto have been fully booked to bring home hundreds of nationals residing abroad, who do not qualify to vote, to break the law on December 10 and then vanish back to Canada.
In the face of evidence that irregularities still plague the lists of electors, EBC officials are burying their heads in the sand and assuring people that all is well and the election will be free and fair. How can that be? Is it fair that people who have lived at an address for decades, and who have never changed their places of abode, suddenly find themselves disenfranchised? Or that claims of persons registered at certain addresses, but who have never lived there, are ignored by the EBC?
I have written before that there were always questions over the accuracy of electoral lists and the fairness of the electoral process long before the EBC came into being. The late Dr Patrick Solomon had this to say: “....the 1950 elections were accompanied by some of the worst malpractices in the territory: padding lists, bogus registrations, intimidation, terrorism and in many cases corrupt activities..on the part of enumerators.” Ironically, Solomon made that statement as the then PNM government moved to introduce the controversial voting machines to eliminate “malpractices”. But the machines were themselves the subject of even more allegations of fraud. Many of them malfunctioned on polling day, and it was felt that they were rigged in favour of the PNM.
Well before the 1966 election Dr Rudranath Capildeo, leader of the opposition DLP, called for “1,000 men to come forward and smash 1,000 machines”. No such violence happened then. I am not sure that the same will hold good in 2001. If people feel cheated, if they feel disenfranchised, if they believe the electoral process is riddled with fraud, one does not know how they might react.
And this is what the EBC officials ought to think about. By their sins of omission they can plunge the country into chaos. The events of 1937 and 1970 proved that we are quite capable of fighting for our rights through unconventional means. Messrs Wilson, Cayenne, Raoul John and others should bear this in mind as they steer the electorate through the murky waters of an election for which the EBC seems woefully unprepared.
Copyright © Raffique Shah