The Guyana Election: More than meets the Eye

David Hinds

By Dr. David Hinds

After almost five months the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) finally declared a winner of Guyana’s March 2, 2020 general and regional elections. Those who are not quite familiar with Guyana’s electoral and political history may ask why has it taken so long to determine an election in a country with a population of just over 750, 000 people? Why did it take seven court cases before the matter could be resolved? Well, there are two answers to those questions—a simple one and a more complex one.

From left: Irfaan Ali President. and Mark Phillips Prime Minister

The simple answer is that there was an election on March2 which on the surface appeared to be quite normal. But as the votes were being tabulated in the country’s most popular region, one contestant, the PPP alleged that the Returning Officer (RO) for the region was mis-tabulating the votes—the votes he was announcing were not synchronizing with the ones on the Statements of Poll in possession of the PPP. This led the PPP to move to the court charging that the RO was violating the lawful procedure of the electoral. The court ruled in their favor and asked GECOM to ensure that the RO complies with the low. When the PPP again alleged that the RO was not complying with the law, the again went to court asking for a finding that the RO was in contempt of court . They further contended that his declarations were fraudulent.

At this point the leader of the governing APNU+ AFC Coalition along with the PPP leader agreed to a recount which they asked CARICOM to observe. They then gazette a Recount Order which set out to determine the credibility of the votes in the boxes. In effect they agreed to an audit  whereby the votes would be verified against the relevant statutory documents to determine whether they were valid or not. A supporter of the Coalition moved to the court challenging the constitutionality of the recount, but the court ruled that the recount was in order as GECOM had the authority to fix and discrepancies it found.

Consequently, the recount which lasted for 35 days unearthed a slew of anomalies and irregularities from voter impersonation, to dead people voting, to ballot boxes without statutory documents to instances where there were more ballots that voters at polling stations. Given these developments GECOM produced two reports. One report was based on the unverified votes or the raw votes in the boxes and a second report based on the observation of the anomalies and irregularities or what came to be known as invalid votes.

When the Chief Elections Officer presented a report to GECOM with both tabulations and claimed that he could not arrive at a winner because of widespread irregularities, this was rejected by GECOM chair who voted with the three PPP commissioners . They asked him to produce a report based on the unverified votes which he refused to comply with. This raised four legal questions.  First, can the tabulation of the unverified votes be used to make a declaration? Second, can the Observation Report of the irregularities be used to make a declaration, or should it be used for an elections petition after the election is over? Third, was the recount order constitutional? Fourth, could the GECOM chair instruct the CEO to produce a report that GECOM favors?

Fourth court cases later, including one before the Caribbean Court of Justice, the court established that the Recount order was legal, that the tabulation of the unverified votes could be used for the declaration and the Observation Report may be used in an election petition and that the GECOM chair could order the CEO to produce the report that she wanted. This then paved the way for GECOM to declare the PPP the winner on August 2, 2020.

However, to get a more nuanced appreciation of the election one has to locate in its broader context. There are three factors that must be contended with. The first factor is that since the 1961 election neither party has accepted the other as the electoral winner. From 1964 to 1985 the PPP never accepted the PNC as the winner, ostensibly because they, the PNC, rigged the elections. But in 2011 and 2015 when the PNC was not charged with systematic rigging, the PPP still refused to accept them as winners. At the heart of the refusal to grant legitimacy to the opposite party is the now commonly accepted truism that neither major ethnic group wants to be governed by the other. They confirm that by repeatedly voting for their ethnic parties even when they express dissatisfaction with those parties

A second factor is the historic but often muted competition for political, economic, and cultural  resources. In a society that has not developed a political praxis of sharing and in a system of majoritarian winner-takes-all, there is a zero-sum  competition for power. Who wins the competition for political power gets to preside over the distribution of economic and cultural resources. In other words when the party wins political power, it is not just a victory for the party but more importantly for the ethnic group.

What is different in 2020 is that Guyana is potentially on the brink of Oil and Gas wealth. The two groups now have something tangible to fight over. Which of the two parties would govern and manage the oil wealth? Both groups have reason to believe that if the opposite party gets into power it would not democratically distribute the wealth. When the PNC was in power Indian Guyanese complained bitterly of being discriminated against. That charge grew louder when the PPP took power as African Guyanese claimed systemic economic marginalization and economic genocide. In 2020, both parties would view surrendering to the other as a betrayal of the wishes of their group to control the oil wealth.

The third factor that explains the prolonged impasse is the intimate involvement in the election of external forces such as the ABCE countries—America, Britain, Canada, European.  By the end of the election it had become clear that these countries had in effect engineered a regime change—they had supported a manipulation of the electoral process to  install the party of their choice.

 The truth is that the ABCE countries have always been involved in Guyanese elections and politics. From the British invasion in 1953 through the American and British intervention in the 1960s and beyond to the Carter Center engagement from 1992 to the present, the foreign involvement has been constant. If the previous involvement was ideological (the fear of communism), the 2020 involvement is different—it is directly political and economic.

The coming of oil has returned Guyana squarely into the orbit of American and European hegemony. These countries by the very definition of their foreign policy are protecting their national interests—they have to. Anyone who has studied Guyanese politics would know that the ABCE countries have always favored one side or the other depending on which one serves their interests.  But this is the first time since the end of the Cold War that they have overtly showed their preference. It is clear that they prefer the PPP. Here it must be remembered that in 2015, the PPP vehemently charged the Americans with involvement in the election and with installing the Coalition in power.

This deep involvement of the ABCE countries has consequences for the behavior of the two parties. The PPP is emboldened by the open support. The embrace of the PPP has opened the way for the Coalition parties to wrap themselves in nationalism and paint the PPP as the party that is willing to trade Guyana’s sovereignty for power. Further, by entangling themselves so deeply in the election, the ABCE countries have exposed themselves rightly or wrongly to the charges of interference in the country’s affairs. Finally, just as they did in the 1960s, they have once again found themselves in the middle of an ethnic conflict.

Dr, David Hinds is an Associate Professor of Social Studies at Arizona State University.