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Guyana elections almost impossible to predict

Monday, May 11, 2015

Guyana goes to the polls today. This is the first time in the country’s electoral history that it is impossible to predict a winner. The ruling PPP has won every election since universal suffrage was granted in 1953. But the party is facing its toughest election battle because a large chunk of its traditional supporters have abandoned it in favour of the opposition or are staying home. They complain about inadequate service, uncontrollable crime, corruption, and the distribution of the country’s resources to foreigners, primarily Chinese.

The election is a close contest between the incumbent (Indian-supported) PPP and the opposition (African supported) PNC-led alliance (renamed APNU)+AFC. The two opposition parties have formed a formidable alliance led by Ret Major General David Granger, leader of the PNC (APNU) who was the right hand man of the late dictator Forbes Burnham. His running mate is Moses Nagamoottoo, the de facto leader of the AFC who was a presidential contender of the PPP which he served for almost 50 years.

Nagamootoo, who served as Minister for almost a decade, studied law at UWI, St Augustine. There are also four other minor parties in the fray, but they will not make any dent into the traditional support of the two behemoths.

Unlike in Trinidad which has the first past the post system, Guyana has a PR system that follows the hare method of distribution of seats based on the percentage of votes obtained. There are 65 seats in the unicameral legislature. Of those, 25 seats are allocated to ten regions (based on population size) called geographic seats and the remaining 40 seats are called top up to equal the number of seats based on the hare calculation. 

In the last parliament, the PPP won 32 seats, PNC (APNU) 26 and AFC 7. Although the combined opposition had more seats than the ruling party, the PPP formed the executive arm of the government. The Burnham constitution, so named after the late dictator, replaced the British-imposed independence constitution with his own without the approval of the population, gives power to the party that wins the most votes and its presidential candidate becomes president.

The PNC and AFC, realising that it cannot defeat the PPP separately, have come together to jointly contest the elections hoping to win more votes than the PPP and form the government. The PNC has promised the AFC 40 per cent of seats, cabinet berths, and government positions.

Both sides are beaming with confidence of an electoral victory. The APNU+AFC says it will win 64 per cent. The PPP says it will win 55 per cent. An ongoing tracking opinion poll being conducted by the North American Caribbean Teachers Association (NACTA) is showing a very tight election. For the first time since polling began in 1992, a PPP victory is not assured. The PPP is facing its toughest re-election with some 10 per cent Indian voters splitting away saying they will vote for the opposition alliance. In addition, many Indians say they will not vote. 

Traditional PNC supporters are cheering for their party saying they will vote out the PPP. PNC supporters are energised and plan to come out in record numbers to cast ballots for their party while PPP supporters are despondent, displaying a lack of enthusiasm and motivation to vote.

The disgruntled Indians say they want to teach the PPP a lesson for inadequately servicing them and for various other personal reasons. It is not a pro-opposition vote but an angry anti-PPP vote to teach the ruling party a lesson.  Analysts express doubt that the Indians will go ahead with their threat to vote for the alliance and feel that when the Indians go to the polling stations on Monday, they will return home and put a “X” next to the PPP’s cup, the symbol of the party.

But the same was said in 2011 when the Indians went ahead with their threat giving the AFC five of its seven seats. If Indians were to return to the fold, the PPP will win a comfortable victory. 

So the outcome of the election hinges on whether the 10 per cent independent Indian voters will stay the course with the coalition.

The NACTA poll finds very little cross-racial voting among Africans for PPP. While Indians are splitting their vote, Africans (30 per cent of the population) have closed rank and are lining up solidly behind the PNC (APNU). A majority of the Amerindians (9 per cent of the voters), as well as almost all of the Whites (primarily Portuguese and Brazilians) and Chinese (1 per cent of the voters), say they are voting for the PPP. The overwhelming majority of the Mixed population that makes up about 16 per cent of the voters are voting for the coalition.

Non-PNC supporters worry about a return of PNC should the coalition win. Several who served the Burnham dictatorship and were tied to atrocities including rape, political murders, are candidates and shadow ministers. Voters express a fear of resurrection of past policies. Almost every voter says they do not want a repeat of the abuses that took place when the PNC was in office.

The tone of the campaign has been very nasty with both sides accusing each other of violating the model code of conduct. Foreign observers and heads of embassies have appealed for calm. Almost every voter says they are concerned about the tone of election campaign and express the hope there will be no violence on or after elections day and that the parties will accept the outcome peacefully.


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