On March 20, 2001, the day after the March 19 elections in Guyana, The Carter Center issued a preliminary statement about the electoral process. The statement characterized the elections up through the balloting process in positive terms, saying that the process was generally peaceful and orderly and that there were no irregularities at the vast majority of the polling sites visited by Carter Center observers. However, the Center's statement noted that observers reported significant confusion surrounding the closing of polls, at least in the Georgetown area, due to conflicting information from the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), the media, and others regarding the possibility of extending voting beyond the scheduled 6:00pm closing time. In addition, while noting that the political parties had expressed concerns about the accuracy of the final voters list, the statement reported that it was difficult at that time to ascertain the magnitude of the problem. Finally, the statement echoed the sentiment of many Guyanese that the elections alone are not sufficient to solve the nation's problems.
In the days following the Center's preliminary statement, other international observer missions issued similar statements, indicating a large degree of consensus on the part of Guyana's friends in the international community.
This statement is issued with benefit of the passage of weeks since the election and is intended to offer observations on the overall electoral process, especially vote tabulation and the voter registration list. Carter Center observers remained in Guyana for about three weeks after the elections and were able to observe the vote tabulation process, the declaration of official results, the court challenge to the swearing in of the president elect, the court's decision, and the subsequent assumption of office by President Jagdeo.
Overall, the Center finds that the electoral process met international standards, that the voters of Guyana were able to freely express their democratic choices on March 19, and that the official results reflected the will of the voters. Unfortunately, there was post-election street violence and lingering doubts about the accuracy of the voters list and final results. While it is critical to improve the electoral system for future elections, it is equally important that Guyanese work together toward political reconciliation, inclusiveness, and good governance.
Election day processes
As noted in its preliminary statement, the Center found that election day and the vote count went peacefully, as voters turned out in large numbers to vote freely for the party of their choice. Poll workers were well trained and acted professionally and impartially. Polling stations were, in most cases, clearly marked and stocked with polling materials. Political party agents were present at almost all of the 415 polls visited by Carter Center observers, and there were no reports of significant security incidents or intimidation. Voters were able to cast their vote in secret, and the ballots were counted at each polling station, with political party agents and poll workers certifying the accuracy of the statements.
In a completely different setting but reflecting this positive assessment only of election day processes in Guyana, President Carter characterized Guyana's elections as "almost perfect" during an interview with CNN in Atlanta on March 26 at a meeting of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which is studying possible reforms needed for U.S. federal elections.
While The Carter Center's overall assessment is positive, several issues arose during the process that GECOM and the government of Guyana will need to address before holding the next election. Voter registration was the principal issue and reason for opposition party claims that GECOM was not ready for election day. Although GECOM had extended pre-election deadlines and issued supplemental voter registration lists in an effort not to disenfranchise voters, the list appeared to suffer from repeated but correctable errors, e.g., last minute dislocation of an undetermined number of registered voters within the list.
Another concern was that the revised voters list had too many names and contained the remnants of fictitious voters added during the original 1996 registration. Based on field testing performed, GECOM believes the list was 95% accurate and that this figure will be upheld by an independent external post-election audit to be performed by International IDEA. A 95% accurate voter registration rate is an accomplishment exceeding rates in many established democracies; however, unexplained changes to the list, which happened sometime during the final correction period, left political parties believing that many of their supporters were being deliberately disenfranchised.
Although Carter Center observers did not witness large numbers of voters on election day who were unable to vote because their names were not on the list, nor did they observe any systematic evidence of voters registering or voting more than once, the issues of the voter registration and accuracy of the list greatly affect the level of confidence of the Guyanese people in GECOM and the electoral process. To address these concerns, and to avoid future registration problems, The Carter Center strongly supports GECOM's commission of an external audit, which will help determine the extent to which the list was inaccurate.
Election management systems
Inaccuracies in voter registration and the resulting delays in production and distribution of voter identification cards are only part of the larger election management and strategic planning process. Future election planning, management, and systems could also be addressed by the upcoming audit if it were expanded to include broader management issues. The audit could then make recommendations on integrating Guyana's newly streamlined electoral management systems and procedural use of technology with the new electoral system that will be adopted by Parliament.
In this year's election, for example, the sophisticated computerized vote reporting and tabulation systems designed with help from international experts was discarded for all practical purposes by GECOM and final results were tabulated manually from nearly 1,900 Statements of Poll at GECOM headquarters. The software for the system was never completely verified prior to the opening of the polls. The vote count was ultimately accurate and honest, but it was inefficient. As a result the announcement of final results was delayed by more than 48 hours, creating suspicions.
Another issue noted by Carter Center observers was the absence of political party agents at the tabulation of results at the national level. The openness and transparency of the system, which had been commendable up to that point, seemed to close once the results were posted at the polling stations and the statements of poll were delivered to the Returning Officers. Access to the GECOM headquarters for party agents became difficult unless special accreditation or escorts were obtained. Although international observers were able to continue their observation of the statements of poll without hindrance after they obtained the extra accreditation, political party agents were absent.
The two major parties, PNC/Reform and PPP/Civic, were less affected since both had representatives on GECOM. However, the smaller parties, including the WPA/GAP, TUF, and ROAR, lacked access to key parts of the tabulation exercise. The ability of party agents from all participating parties to freely monitor the electoral process to its conclusion, including the count and the resolution of electoral disputes, is an essential part of a free and fair process that GECOM should endeavor to facilitate in the future.
The role of the media during the elections was monitored closely by GECOM's Media Monitoring Unit (MMU) and others and thus was not a major focus of The Carter Center's observation mission. Nonetheless, the Center wishes to echo the views of the MMU and other international observers by noting the unbalanced and biased coverage in the state-owned media, and the irresponsible and inflammatory broadcasts of various TV talk shows, including open partisanship under the guise of news, even on election day. In the future, while respecting freedom of the press, laws governing the media must be strengthened to address these problems.
Despite the problems encountered, some of which are inherent in administering a nationwide electoral apparatus with more than 9,000 temporary employees and almost 500,000 voters, The Carter Center found that the voters of Guyana were able to freely express their democratic choices on March 19 and that the official results reflected the will of the voters. The Carter Center congratulates the Guyanese people, GECOM, and the political parties on an electoral process that met international standards.
Unfortunately, Guyana's electoral achievements have been marred by arson, post-election street violence and lingering doubts among the opposition party and its supporters as to the accuracy of the results. Fixing technical deficiencies in the process should be comparatively easy; however, curing the deep-seated mistrust that finds sinister cause in routine election administration will be much more difficult.
The new government and Parliament, together with civil society participants, must continue the process of constitutional and electoral reform. They should pledge to put the nation first and work for political reconciliation, inclusiveness and good governance in order to achieve the sustained development citizens yearn for. Dialogue now underway in Guyana is an encouraging sign.
Carter Center and Guyana
The Carter Center closed its election observation office in Guyana on April 6, 2001, after having been in country since February 5, 2001. The Center's field office director and six medium term observers, supplemented by 37 short term observers, formed a delegation led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter and former Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford of Barbados. Delegates observed election preparations and the electoral process from the nomination of parties and candidates through the campaign period, polling and the announcement of the results, as well as the post-election activities described in this statement.
The Carter Center will issue a comprehensive final report in June on its two-month observation of the electoral process in Guyana and will include recommendations on how the electoral process can be improved. While The Carter Center and others are pleased to offer recommendations, it is up to the Guyanese people to capitalize on the gains made during the March 19 elections.
Beyond the elections, The Carter Center remains involved with Guyanese democratic development efforts through its support for the National Development Strategy and its work on rule of law and strengthening civil society in a long-term project partnered with NDI, IFES, and Guyanese stakeholders.