Inside story: The electoral petition at No. 19… as the verdict comes in

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After the verdict, the MMM people (Adebiro, Nagalingum and Navarre-Marie) consult with their lawyer, Gavin Glover.

After the verdict, the MMM people (Adebiro, Nagalingum and Navarre-Marie) consult with their lawyer, Gavin Glover.

The week has been a long one… since the shock announcement in Court by the Electoral Commissioner on Wednesday January 12. The parties to the case were informed on Thursday of the ruling on the potential vote recount the next day. However, courtoom No. 9 at the New Supreme Court was overflowing...

Friday was the big day. As the judges prepare to deliver their ruling in the election petition of MMM unreturned candidate Jenny Adebiro in No.19, outside courtroom number 9 on the seventh floor of the new Supreme Court building, sat Arianne Navarre-Marie. The verdict in Adebiro’s case is scheduled for 10 am. Navarre-Marie’s own petition is scheduled at 10:30 for debate on whether she should be allowed to cross-examine Electoral Commissioner Irfan Rahman; her motion dates back to last year when she wanted the Master and Registrar of the Supreme Court to allow her lawyers to cross-examine Rahman.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) had objected to Rahman being cross-examined, referring to a decision delivered in Cader Sayed-Hossen’s election petition on September 16, 2021, when the Supreme Court did not allow the ESC to put Sayed-Hossen on the stand over his answers. No doubt, the contradictions that emerged from Dharmjai Mulloo’s testimony in the Adebiro case over the votes counted in no.19 would do wonders for Navarre-Marie’s own case in No. 1, if the ESC could be caught out in same contradictions there too.

So, interest in how the court decides Adebiro’s case is high. She is soon joined outside the courtroom by Jenny Adebiro herself as well as Deven Nagalingum and Mevin Miniandee. All from the MMM. Also showing up is Ken Fong, a member of Muvman Liberater and former mayor of Beau Bassin-Rose Hill until August 2020, to support his party leader, Ivan Collendavelloo. The same man Adebiro is seeking to oust in the potential recount. As the door opens, people start filing in, and courtroom No. 9 is soon packed to capacity.

A packed courtroom

This is quite remarkable as far as election petitions go: only hearings involving big fish like Navin Ramgoolam in No. 10 or Suren Dayal petition in No. 8, prime minister Pravind Jugnauth’s home constituency, have so far attracted big audiences. Now in anticipation of the unusual turn of Adebiro’s petition, the room is so packed that must stand near the door straining to hear the verdict. After a spate of election petitions, either withdrawn or dismissed by the court, this is the one that could work out and change the game.

A subdued Ivan Collendavelloo walks in, followed shortly by one of his lawyers, Ravin Chetty. He signals to the latter, and they start discussing. Collendavelloo is not sitting in the right-hand seats of the public gallery reserved for government candidates, but near the lawyers. This is from where he will hear the verdict.

On the left-hand side of the public gallery, which in all election petition hearings, is reserved for petitioners, the corner seat is kept empty for Adebiro. This is her moment. Electoral Commissioner Irfan Rahman is not in the courtroom, but his office is represented by Dharmajai Mulloo, his previous deputy and now his adviser, whose testimony and documents have led to this moment.

The Court walks in and Judge Aruna Devi Narain proceeds to read out the decision. There is silence in the courtroom as everyone hangs on every word. The verdict has a lot to say about the way this case has proceeded. Just to indicate how the counting errors in No. 19 took every side by surprise, after recounting the chronology of the case, Narain chastises the lawyers. “It is a matter of regret that all learned senior counsels, as well as parliamentary counsels, did not deem it fit to make submissions in law on the principles that should guide this court in deciding whether to grant a recount. They contented themselves with stating that there was no objection to a recount in the light of the discrepancies noted and reference was made in very general terms to fairness and the need to uphold the integrity of the election process.” When the unexpected bolt came out of the blue, everyone was taken by surprise. No one came up with the reams of papers and legal authorities that had characterised each stage of the election petition so far.

Glaring discrepancies

Nor does the verdict spare the rod when it comes to who the court sees as responsible for those blunders. “We would venture to say that,” Narain reads in her ruling, “in future, much greater vigilance should be exercised, first and foremost, by the returning officer who has to certify the return of candidates and the number of votes obtained by endorsement on the writ of election, but also election officers in general, by the office of the electoral commissioner and by the electoral supervisory commission, as well as by candidates themselves and their agents in whose presence the number of votes is read out loud by heads of counting rooms and recorded, in order, precisely, to ensure the accuracy of figures and avoid such glaring discrepancies and lack of reconciliation of figures. It is worth noting in this regard that candidates or their election agents may, on completion of the counting, require the returning officer to have the votes recounted, or again recounted, and need in fact to be given a reasonable opportunity to exercise that right in between completion of the counting and declaration of the poll.”

In other words, as far as the court is concerned, everyone dropped the ball on counting day when no one noticed that some of the numbers coming out of the counting rooms did not make sense. After the verdict has been read out loud, adviser Mulloo leaves the courtroom with photographers clicking at him, while on the steps of the Supreme Court, surrounded by microphones, Ivan Collendavelloo simply states, “the Master and Registrar will do the recount. Not the electoral commissioner or the ESC.”

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