For decades, the two main political parties in this English-speaking South American outpost have been divided along racial lines with one drawing its well-spring of support from African descendants and the other from the country’s East Indian population.
But changing demographics and the emergence of a multiracial third party have turned Monday’s election for president and parliament into one of the most closely watched since this former British colony transitioned from socialism to democracy 23 years go.
“These are probably going to be the most highly contested elections, the most important elections since 1992,” said Jason Calder, field office director for the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which will field the largest group of observers.
Though six parties are contesting the elections countrywide, the match-up is really between the governing People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C), in power for 23 years, and the opposition coalition consisting of the predominately Afro-Guyanese, A Partnership for National Unity, and the multiracial Alliance For Change.
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“At this point, anybody can win,” said Henry Jeffrey, a former PPP/C government minister.
The issues in the race are corruption, nepotism, drugs and the awarding of government contracts to non-locals. But it is the inciting language emerging out of both camps that is getting attention.
Things have become so heated that some worry the balloting could exacerbate racial tensions at a time when the divisions seem to be softening, and cause Guyana to revert to the days when deeply divided elections ended in race riots.
“Some people are just scared,” said Michael Edwards, a grocer at the Bourda open-air market where customers have been packing the aisles for days as they stock up. “They are buying up everything; rice, meat, anything they feel is necessary.”
Monday’s vote comes four years after opposition parties edged out the government by one seat in parliament during the 2011 elections but failed to win the presidency. The imbalance led to a political paralysis that eventually forced President Donald Ramotar to call elections a year early after suspending the 65-member assembly in November to avoid a no-confidence vote.
Faced with losing power to a united opposition, Ramotar has brought back former President Bharrat Jagdeo, who left office in 2011, to help appeal to voters.
Critics, however, have accused Jagdeo of using racially charged language as he invokes reminders of Guyana’s socialist history under deceased President Forbes Burnham, the controversial Afro-Guyanese founder of the People’s National Congress who took Guyana to independence in 1966. Burnham, who died in office in 1985, turned the country into a one-man socialist dictatorship where elections were alleged to have been rigged, and basic products, like democratic governance, were in short supply.
“When the PPP tries to rally its traditional supporters by going back historically to the Burnham riots of the 1960s and the elections that were rigged, that essentially boils down to race baiting,” Jeffrey said. “Jagdeo and the PPP are doing what I thought they would do.”
Jagdeo denies the accusation, saying the opposition hates his involvement in the campaign.
“They think they can muzzle me by spurious accusations, however, my record speaks for itself ,” Jagdeo told the Miami Herald. “I have always and will always maintain that Guyana belongs equally to all its people regardless of their racial origin.”
While the opposition says it wants to bring about change, Jagdeo said it has chosen to run a candidate, Brigadier David Granger, who served in the army under Burnham.
“They are running with a presidential candidate who was commander of the army and national security adviser when soldiers were used to snatch ballot boxes, when the army gave 400 high powered guns to his party, which later found their way into the hands of criminals,” Jagdeo said of Granger. “He refuses to account for his history.”
Colonel Joseph Harmon, the coalition’s campaign manager, said Granger “has given a factual account of where he was, and what he did, and that is a matter of public record.”
“Jagdeo is a stranger to the truth and even when the truth and facts are staring him straight in the face he refuses to acknowledge it,” Harmon said. “President Jagdeo is decidedly fanning the flames of racial hatred. That is the whole purpose of that statement.”
Harmon said the concerns about the use of inciting language, particularly the speeches coming from the PPP/C platform, are valid.
“I don’t believe that it’s going to have the kind of impact the PPP hopes it would,” he said. “All along, we have given clear directions that we are not going to be involved in character assassination and in cases where some of our speakers did, we have called them in and spoken to them about staying on message.”
Still, with party supporters not mincing words at campaign rallies about alleged corruption and failed government projects, Jeffrey doubts their promise to include PPP/C members in their government should they win.
“Will they cherry pick?” he said.
A supporter of the alliance, Jeffery believes the choice of Granger is working against the coalition because of his army connection, and he is “a PNC ideologue.”
International observers say they expect a high turnout among the more than 570,000 persons eligible to vote.
“From what we are seeing, you probably have more people registering to vote because of the interests but also because of greater effort on the part of the election authorities to get people registered,” said Calder of the Carter Center. “Also the system of removing deceased voters from the rolls is not as efficient as it could be and that is probably one of the things they will have to look carefully at after the election.”
Ovid Doobay, a former PPP member and city counselor, who says he hasn’t missed an election since 1962 said he intends to vote for change.
“The party is not the party I knew and was a member of,” he said. “Guyana is in a serious situation and needs a change.”
But Sunita Dalcharran, 35, a mother of two, says she plans to stick to the government’s message of continued progress.
“Progress is important for everyone and I want to be part of that progress,” Dalcharran said.
Last week, the Commonwealth and Carter Center called for peaceful elections. The latter issued a statement condemning what it called “any attempt to sow fear and distrust among Guyana’s ethnic groups or to undermine confidence in its electoral process and institutions.”
“The Carter Center is deeply concerned about the provocative rhetoric in the campaign,” the observer organization said. “It is imperative that political parties remain conscious of their obligations.”
This will be the Carter Center’s 100th observer mission and it will be personally led by former President Jimmy Carter, who between 1990 and 1992 persuaded Burnham’s successor, Desmond Hoyte, to hold Guyana’s first post-independence free and fair elections in 1992.
“That was a long painstaking two-year process of negotiating an electoral transition that was ultimately accepted by all sides,” Calder said.
But after 15 years of helping Guyana with its national development strategy, strengthening civil society and the court system, and promoting preservation of its rainforest, Carter, who is now 90, stepped back.
“President Carter was frustrated with the political elite, that they were not able to come together in a more constructive way,” Calder said.
Jeffrey said he hopes Monday’s vote ushers in change. While he concedes that he has concerns about the coalition, he is much more concerned about the length of time the PPP has been in power.
“I don’t believe any government should be in office for so long,” Jeffrey said. “When they are in office for so long, they appear to be unmovable. If they cannot be moved then they undermine all of the institutions of society.”