While former Opposition leader Dr Keith Rowley was sworn in as Prime Minister during a ceremony at Queen's Hall, Port-of-Spain, yesterday, former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar was challenging the result of Monday's general election and asking that it be declared null and void.
She also chastised the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) for what she claimed was a sudden change in the regulations, resulting in the entire process being sabotaged. In a letter issued yesterday, Persad-Bissessar described the People's National Movement's 23-18 victory as unfair. Persad-Bissessar blamed the extended hour granted to citizens as playing a key role in what she maintained was a biased result.
"A decision has been taken to challenge the results of the general election based on legal advice the People's Partnership has received. The challenge is based on the sudden decision of the EBC to extend the time for voting from 6 pm to 7 pm throughout the country without any official notification to the People's Partnership and its constituent parties," Persad-Bissessar said.
She said the rules which govern a general election were quite clear, adding that strict adherence to such rules was absolutely necessary to minimise and avoid irregularities. Failure to do so, Persad-Bissessar added, would result in allegations and perceptions of unfairness and favouritism.
In questioning the late swing of the votes in favour of the PNM during the count, Persad-Bissessar said: "Information and data received by the party strongly suggested that the People's Partnership was comfortably ahead in the polls at 6 pm."The march to victory was adversely affected by the sudden unilateral decision by the EBC to extend hours of the poll from 6 pm to 7 pm."
In chastising the EBC, Persad-Bissessar said the organisation "cannot and should not" change the rules of engagement without giving proper notice to candidates, political parties and voters."We have received reports that citizens were unable to cast their vote at certain polling stations because the officials of the EBC were themselves unaware or uncertain about the decision to extend the time of voting until 7 pm.
"Additionally, many citizens were unaware of this extension of time and hence did not cast their vote," Persad-Bissessar alleged.In citing Rule 27 (1) of the election rules, she said the "taking of the poll at each polling station shall be between 6 in the morning and 6 in the afternoon of the same day."
Any suspension or adjournment must be based on fair and adequate prior public notice to ensure there was a level playing field, she said.Thus, the poll could have been adjourned to the following day to facilitate those who were unable to cast their vote for good reason. This has in fact happened in the past, Persad-Bissessar pointed out.
Persad-Bissessar said the PP had also been advised that the decision by the EBC to give an extra hour undermined the legal framework which governed the conduct of the general election and was tantamount of the shifting of the political goal post at the end of the game."This might have very well affected the integrity of the process and the results in critical constituencies.
"This is a serious and important violation of the spirit and intention of the Constitution, the Representation of the People's Act and the election rules. We will therefore file these election petitions to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and justice is done," Persad-Bissessar said.
Monday was the second time the EBC extended voting hours. The other occasion was during the December 4, 1961 election due to problems with voting machines. Cabinet met in emergency session then to approve the extension of hours.
Ramesh: Vexatious claim
Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj described Persad-Bissessar's allegations as frivolous and vexatious.Speaking briefly on CNC 3 last night, Maharaj said the EBC was also well within its right to extend the voting hours.
"It does not seem to me on the face of it that it can hold because the EBC is an independent commission, given as one of its primary functions and the object to have fair elections in T&T," Maharaj said.He said in an instance where the EBC believed there was an incident which created an emergency situation, and which could have affected the fairness of the election by depriving some people a chance to vote during the time of voting, it had the power, "expressed or implied," to ensure that occurred.
"Giving an extra hour cannot in, and even be said, to violate the powers of the EBC," Maharaj added.
However, he said that issue would not hamper the elected government from carrying out its functions, adding that the move by Persad-Bissessar was a futile attempt to "keep the old government in office."
"In order for that to occur an application would have to be made to a court for a court to grant a retrieving order to prevent a new Government from taking office, but no court would grant such an order because to get such an order you have to first show you have a strong legal case. I think the court would hold that this claim is frivolous and vexatious and an abuse of the court."