Despite a catastrophic drop of 22 points in voter turnout from 2001, the Guyanese freely and safely voted in democratic elections, making this the first time in the last four national elections that such benign conditions existed. Unfortunately, the election results will bring no resolution to Guyana’s deeply ingrained problem of racial division which asphyxiates Guyana’s political life on a daily basis, rendering it a caricature of a healthy and vibrant society. Reelected President Jagdeo, who represents the wealthier segment of Guyana’s majority East Indian population, has to be held partly accountable for the violent crime surges which characterized his first term in office. Therefore, the August 28 election, at best, serves as a reminder not only of the importance of renewed faith in the Guyanese political process but also of the chilling effect Guyana’s racially-polarized politics is having on the country.
After three consecutive elections marked by violent unrest, Dr. Steve Surujbally, chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), was pleased to announce the successful outcome of the August 28 election. Concerning the event, Dr. Surujbally said that “a high level of commitment, professionalism and efficiency has been evident in the preparation for these elections.” The Organization of American States (OAS), Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and the Carter Center together sent 154 representatives to monitor the electoral process throughout Guyana. Despite the dismissal of one polling officer as the result of alleged multiple voting, concerned officials were more than satisfied with the smooth process. In this respect, President Jagdeo deserves credit for presiding over a surprisingly untainted presidential ballot. Unfortunately, this is where the extent of positive change in Guyana ends for him.
Racial Party System
The two main political parties of Guyana are sharply distinguished by race. Jagdeo’s PPP party consists primarily of the wealthier elements of the Indo-Guyanese community, but whose mass base also composes about fifty percent of the total population. The opposing party, the People’s National Congress/ Reform (PNC) represents the Afro-Guyanese population which was in power from 1964 to 1992. The PNC candidate, Robert Corbin, who ran as the candidate of a coalition called the One Guyana Platform, represents around 43 percent of Guyana’s mainly urban, mostly black, poverty-gripped population. The PNC, once under the authoritarian Forbes Burnham, had pushed for Guyana to become a non-aligned socialist state. However commencing under the leadership of the late President Desmond, the PNC has been championing conservative neo-liberal economic policies and hard-line politics.
Another smaller party, the nine-month-old Alliance for Change (AFC), had hoped to create a middle ground for Guyanese looking to avoid voting along racial lines. This was also the dream of Eusi Kwayana’s Working People’s Alliance, whose sophisticated position and high-minded political creed was never able to capture the allegiance of many Guyanese. Some members of the electorate, namely unemployed college graduates, turned to the AFC to provide an answer for Guyana’s chronically violent and racialized politics. Looking for ways to reduce the everyday havoc they saw in the tumultuous nature of Guyana’s politics, Western countries such as the United States and Canada have been privately lending significant backing to the new party. Western diplomats had hoped the Alliance for Change would cut into the power of the PPP, whom they see as a major contributor to the racial violence in the country. Unfortunately, as the election results demonstrated, the AFC was successful only in taking away votes from the PPP’s main rival, the PNC. Down from the 27 seats the PNC controlled in the Parliament’s term, it will now possess only 22. Meanwhile, the PPP will hold 36 seats, an even stronger delegation than before.
A History of Violence
In contrast to the peaceful August 28 election, the March 2001 presidential tally, for example, was punctuated by assaults, road blocks, vandalism, and confrontations with law enforcement authorities in the capital city Georgetown, and surrounding areas. During the period when Cheddi Jagan and his wife, Janet Rosenberg held the presidency, democracy thrived amidst an underlying ambience of mounting racially-triggered violence. However, while the Jagans abhorred racial politics and would have nothing to do with it, Jagdeo proved much more tolerant. Since the Jagans, there has been a precipitous increase in organized crime throughout the country, which some analysts link to Guyana’s unmitigated racially-induced tensions. Due to the most recent outbreaks of violence, including the assassinations of Guyana’s agriculture minister, Satyadeow Sawh and television talk show host Ronald Waddell earlier this year, national elections were postponed for several weeks from a previously scheduled date of August 3.
The issues of drug trafficking and gang violence, as well as money laundering, have seriously blemished Jagdeo and his People’s Progressive Party’s last term in office and became this year’s campaign’s main issue. Guyana has even been nicknamed a “mini-narco state.” The two main opposition parties, the PNC and AFC, used these national preoccupations as the basis for their attacks on the PPP and as a call for change of leadership. These parties, as well as the international observers present in the country to monitor the election, point to the fact that President Jagdeo consistently has failed to stem the rising tide of violent crime, while rumors of death squad-type gangs and human rights violations continue to weaken the government’s legitimacy. Faced with the threat of economic repercussions due to his ineffectiveness, Jagdeo has enacted legislation to begin to clean up Guyana’s violent reputation, such as revamping Georgetown’s police force. Yet, there has been little witnessed change and, as any visitor to Georgetown will attest, the problem of organized crime is as rampant as ever in Guyana.
Low Turn-Out; Predictable Results
Although the government deserves a nod for executing a peaceful election, there is still the high abstention factor to consider. It is important to note that August 28’s election witnessed the lowest voter turnout since the country gained its independence from the British in 1966. The participation of a scant 490,000 voters easily translates as an expression of a profound malaise. This is to be expected given Guyana’s violent history regarding electoral events. PNC presidential contender Robert Corbin went so far as to declare that the turn-out statistics prove that the PPP’s victory was more an “ethnic consensus” than anything else. He also made claims of fraud in the polling stations, but these have not been further substantiated. Whether or not these claims are verifiable, the weak turn-out prevents Jagdeo from establishing that he truly represents the majority will of his country. One can only hope that the relatively calm voting pattern and benign nature of the proceedings, which have just been seen, ensures democracy’s foothold in Guyana. Now attention must be directed towards increasing voter participation in the future.
As for the outcome, those who closely followed the campaign predicted the win for PPP’s Bharrat Jagdeo. It is important to note, however, that the high rate of abstention tends to communicate the fact that the population is largely unsatisfied with Jagdeo’s leadership in matters such as tackling organized crime and the drug trade. Furthermore, many Guyanese hoped for an even division of power between the main parties in the Parliament. In this regard, results disappointed.
What the Reelection Means for the Hemisphere
Countries with a vested interest in Guyana had hoped the August 28 election would bring to power an indisputably representative government, as well as inaugurate a more stable environment for foreign direct investment. However, the current explosive racial tension permeating Guyana makes it, in fact, a far from attractive environment to promote business. President Jagdeo had won considerable voter support in his last term by building schools and roadways and by attempting to reduce the country’s debt. However, he failed to dent the high crime rate and was ultimately unable to convince foreign investors that his country was worth the risk. The potential profit awaiting Guyana, with its rich timber and bauxite reserves, will continue to be untapped as long as these industries lack the necessary inputs of foreign assets. Without leadership change, one can argue that the August 28 elections brought zero potential long-term benefits for the Guyanese. Guyana proved in its elections that freedom of choice exists at least on some level, but it missed the larger opportunity to engender a more inclusive and stable political environment.