Weekly speaks to Rashid Imrith, president of the Fédération des syndicats du secteur public, who has called for a fact-finding committee to look into the perceived irregularities during the recent general election. He explains the particular difficulties the election officers were faced with and talks about the electoral commissioner’s role in this.
Before the holidays you were calling for a fact-finding committee to look into the recent election. What is it that you are so concerned about?
The year 2019 has been marked by a general election and this is the first time that there has been such an outcry after the results were proclaimed. A lot of criticism has been made against the Electoral Commissioner’s Office (ECO). As there are about 15,000 election officers who serve as support staff to conduct the general elections, we feel that the ECO should come and explain to the public under which conditions we are required to perform our duties as election officers.
Why? Do you feel that civil servants are also being blamed for what happened?
Yes. In fact, every corner of the country is blaming us civil servants. Those people who are involved in militant action and even trade unionists think that we as civil servants have not been up to the mark.
I think we should welcome criticism to improve the situation, but we don’t have the appropriate forum to do that. That’s why we have asked for a fact-finding committee so everybody whether s/he is a civil servant, party agent or a member of the public, can say what they have to say.
And what do you have to say?
We as civil servants might have something to say that the ECO does not know.
Like the extraordinary number of complaints you have received?
Yes, Normally, we have some 15 to 20 representations from electors in every polling station during the elections. This time we had over 400 representations. The ECO did not foresee this situation and did not provide adequate staff.
What kind of representations did you hear?
Mostly people who voted at every election but whose names did not appear on the list this time around. Or the ECO changing the polling station because of the exams taking place at the same time but mainly criticism of the new system of communication introduced.
Do you mean the computer system?
Yes, a computer system was used for the first time as a means of communication between the ECO headquarters and each polling station.
What is wrong with that?
This new system used wifi and, in many schools, the wifi did not work. So the main office of Port Louis was giving returns from each polling station each hour. But in some polling stations, they had to wait for two to three hours to submit returns. This problem occurred as well on counting day: figures were being released but the appropriate counting station was not submitting returns at the time it was scheduled, with election officers supposed to submit returns every 30 minutes.
Could this system have resulted in errors or deliberate fraud, according to you?
I cannot comment on this but what I can say is that at times figures that were appearing in polling stations did not tally with figures from the ECO in Port Louis. Any new system introduced in future should be discussed with people working on the ground. For this election, they should not have tested a new system especially because of the time factor and the scarcity of election officers. Some of these election officers received their letters on the eve of the election! So no time for training.
Shouldn’t you have known that the election taking place at the same time as exams would not run smoothly? Couldn’t you have anticipated that?
Yes, we did. However, when parliament was dissolved, the election date was decided and it was decided without consultation with the ECO. The electoral commissioner was not made aware of the date until the eve. He was put in front of a fait accompli.
But as someone who is nominated by the Judicial and Legal Services Commission and not a political appointee, could he not have refused saying that he could not conduct the election under those circumstances as he must have suspected they would not be free and fair?
Yes, there were many factors that contributed to that. First, the 30-day period is not enough time to hold a proper election. Secondly, many of the polling stations were taken up by exams. Thirdly, we cannot train staff in such a short time as election officers with experience were busy overseeing exams. Also, the electronic system was introduced for the first time. Election officers were only made aware of this system on the briefing day. To sum up, if I were to advise the electoral commissioner, I would have told him to tell the prime minister to have confidence in the ECO and not ask for elections to be held in 30 days. Unfortunately, he did not do that.
Are you one of those asking for his resignation?
If we have a fact-finding committee, the electoral commissioner will have to depone and the ECO will have to provide all the information. He will then have to consider whether he will take leave in the interest of our democracy. He is mature enough to know what to do.
Do you agree that he should have said that he did not have the resources, the trained staff or the schools to hold the election in those circumstances?
Yes, he should have said that. Instead, he conducted the election but did not foresee these problems.
When you called for the setting up of a fact-finding committee and you called on your members to come forward to talk about things rather than brush dirt under the carpet, what kind of dirt were you talking about?
Many procedures changed in this election and that has resulted in confusion and lack of transparency. Because of the exams, we did not have access to the appropriate premises, so we had to walk in the yard with confidential sheets of information without any police escort and in the presence of political agents. We cannot let a civil servant walk with a counting sheet in a yard without a police escort.
If you were called as a witness before the fact-finding committee you are advocating, will you say that the whole electoral process was transparent or not?
I would say that election officers worked under stressful conditions. This has had a negative impact on their performance.
So when you say their performance was negatively affected under these exceptional circumstances, would you say it resulted in errors or a lack of transparency in this election?
What happened may give rise to doubts.
Are these justified?
You cannot stop people from jumping to conclusions. You have to be transparent and give explanations whenever there is the perception of lack of it.
Are you saying that all these irregularities that people are talking about are just a figment of their imagination?
No! Some things happened that did not happen before. Some ballot papers which were supposed to be in the possession of the Special Mobile Force (SMF) in Vacoas were found in nature. This is the first time that this has happened and it is serious. I myself have no answer to the question as to why or how these ballot papers found themselves out of the ballot box.
Or how a ballot box was taken away by an officer and returned to the voting station four days later…
In fact, two days before the election, all the senior presiding officers proceed to police stations with a stationary box, a black box, with all the ballot papers, embossers and list of electors for each class and a master list for each polling station. On the day of the election, the senior presiding officer takes the box from the police station, breaks the seal and empties the box. At the end of the day, in the presence of the political agents, the senior presiding officer hands over the empty boxes to the headmaster of the school and from there, these are taken to the Ministry of Public Infrastructure.
Why did one officer take the box home instead, supposedly ‘inadvertently’?
They should not have. That’s irregular.
So the internet goes down during counting day, a new system introduced without any proper training given to officers handling it, ballot papers found outside and then a box taken home ‘inadvertently’, thousands of citizens purged from the electoral registers… are you telling me all these are not irregularities?
All these are not irregularities.
But they are not normal procedure, are they?
No. If I take the example of the black boxes, they have no impact on the counting of the ballots.
How do you know the black box was empty? I mean, why would you take an empty box home?
The officer should explain and action should be taken. But out of 15,000 officers, if one or two persons are faulty, this should be used to blame the whole organisation.
No but should some not be blamed?
Action should be taken if no explanation has been given.
What kind of explanation would satisfy you in the case of a whole box being taken home ‘inadvertently’?
No explanation would satisfy me because taking home a stationary box, even if it is empty, is irregular.
Why would someone take the risk of taking a ballot box home if it is empty?
Yes, that would give rise to suspicion.
What about the ballot papers found outside?
I think the ECO should give an explanation. If one, two or three have been found, maybe there are more out there. This is a serious concern. I would not defend any officer at all costs if there was something amiss. Out of the 15,000 civil servants who were involved in the elections, there may have been some who were guilty of irregularity and cannot explain their actions. In those cases, action must be taken if there is proof that there were irregularities. That’s why we say there has to be a fact-finding committee with the ECO shedding light on all this. I myself cannot understand how these ballot papers have been circulating.
What other problems cropped up during this general election?
In all former general elections only one guard room is used and on counting day, the returning officer stands on a table so he has an overview of all the ballot boxes. In this case, there were several guard rooms so the returning officer had to rely on his deputy to watch the ballot boxes in the other rooms. Thirdly, it is the first time that we have had an election on day one, counting on day two and results proclaimed on day three.
Why did you take that long to count?
Well because one political party had doubts and wanted to check each and every ballot box, which is their right. And then there were some 100 people in a guard room that can contain a maximum of 40. Then we entered the guard room at 7.30am and counting did not start until noon.
Why keep the boxes so long before opening them?
That’s up to the returning officer.
Why did he give such instructions for certain constituencies?
These things gave rise to suspicion. Up to now, we don’t have explanations from these people. So in the absence of adequate information, you cannot stop people from jumping to conclusions.
There was no reason to start counting that late in No.10, for example. Isn’t that in itself suspicious?
Even the election officers who were not in the guard rooms started asking questions. They themselves were asking why it took so long for the ballot boxes to come to the counting room. Again, you cannot stop people from jumping to conclusions. From now until that is addressed, these suspicions will continue.
Who should set up this fact-finding committee?
If I were the electoral commissioner, I would support the fact-finding committee to lay to rest any doubts. We have two elections, municipal and village elections and many civil servants won’t want to work because they are under great pressure.
With everything we talked about, do you think that the electoral commissioner should resign?
If the Supreme Court finds that he has been at fault, then he should be invited to resign.
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