Cooling Ethnic Conflict in Guyana’s Elections

Cooling Ethnic Conflict in Guyana’s Elections

When Steve Surujbally, a former advisor to the minister of agriculture, accepted a presidential appointment as chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission in September 2001, he had no experience in election administration. In accepting the appointment, Surujbally recognized how politically charged his new role would be. Guyana had a history of tense racially-aligned politics between the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese with roots in colonial policies, suspected Cold War alliances with the Soviet Union, and personal political rivalries. Campaign seasons were marred by violence, ranging from riots to assassinations. Political candidates competed fiercely for every vote in a country of just 760,000 and a parliament elected by proportional representation. 

Electoral conflict was concentrated between two parties: the primarily Indo-Guyanese supporters of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the primarily Afro-Guyanese supporters of the People’s National Congress (PNC). The election commission included three representatives from each of these parties, an uneasy balance that slowed deliberations, which then spurred critics to attack the commission as biased or indecisive. Nevertheless, Guyana’s elections commission worked with international donors, and civil society groups before the last election in 2006 and was able to defuse conflict, thwart violence, and deliver free and peaceful elections. 

This cooperative solution was rooted in public frustration with the violence surrounding the March 2001 regional elections, which were particularly contentious. When voters found their names missing from the registry on election day, the opposition PNC accused the incumbent PPP of dirty tricks. Moreover, the elections commission reported results four days after the election, exacerbating tensions. Television and radio hosts contributed to the frenzy by pushing rival narratives about the source of the delay. Although international observers ultimately declared the election free and fair, many citizens believed it was rigged. Incidents of violence quickly escalated into angry public protests and retaliation. The elections commission needed to restore trust between the Indo- and Afro-Guyanese communities, and trust in the electoral process, ahead of the fall 2006 elections. 

Surujbally and his six electoral commissioners knew they had to revamp the elections commission in order to rebuild credibility and avoid the mistakes of 2001. Their first priority was to improve the voter registration process. In 2001, the commission had registered voters only during the few months preceding the election, when tensions were already high and parties were quick to seize upon any perceived fault in the process. In this charged atmosphere, the registry became a political football. 

Assessing their options before the 2006 elections, the three PNC-nominated commissioners wanted a full door-to-door verification of the registry. Surujbally and the three PPP-nominated commissioners argued that this would not be cost effective, and lobbied for a continuous registration system grounded upon the existing registry. They contended that spreading registration across the electoral cycle would also make the process less open to political criticism. After many meetings, the PPP-nominated members overruled their PNC-nominated colleagues and called for the reuse of the 2001 registry — an outcome that created significant tension within the commission. 

In order to do this, the commission had to go and create registration field offices. It placed one office in each of Guyana’s 10 administrative regions, and established additional offices in more populous regions to avoid overcrowding. In total, the commission set up 23 permanent field offices and 160 temporary ones, to cope with increased registrations right before the election. 

Field offices assigned voters unique computer-generated identity numbers to safeguard privacy and reduce errors. Under the old registration process, there were mix-ups between voters who registered together with their relatives and received similar numbers. The commission resolved the problem by adding two randomly-generated "check digits" to the end of each identity number. After voters registered, elections officials visited their homes to take digital pictures of the voters, their source documents, and fingerprints. Two IT operators separately keyed in each form so that the system could flag data entry errors. 

Voter mistrust was only one hurdle facing the commission; another was an inflammatory media. The commission worked with international donor agencies to establish the Media Monitoring Unit to seek out  inaccurate, biased, or inflammatory statements in print and broadcast media. Commissioners met with prominent members of the media to review examples of irresponsible reporting from the 2001 elections and discuss the subsequent violence. Keen to clean up their reputations, leading media houses agreed to adhere to a new code of conduct. They committed to providing fair, balanced, and accurate information about the elections. The monitoring unit assessed the media’s behavior before, during, and after the election and flagged reports that violated the new code. Also, the unit examined the volume of election coverage given to each party, negative or positive. 

When media sources violated the code of conduct — for instance, if radio talk show hosts made derogatory remarks against an ethnic group — the commission wrote them a letter reminding them of their commitment. Jainarine Deonauth, the unit’s deputy manager, explained that the unit treaded lightly: "Some of [the media outlets] … thought they were fighting a battle to represent their ethnic group, and any attempt to control them was looked at as stifling media freedom." To avoid politicizing the review process, the unit referred any infractions to an independent panel of two veteran journalists from other Caribbean nations. 

Hastening the release of election results was addressed by increasing manpower. In 2001, too few staffers had supervised key areas. For example, the region comprising the capital Georgetown that represented almost 50 percent of the electorate had only 20 deputies to collect election results. For the 2006 elections, the commission increased that number to 68. The commission also changed the process for transmitting results. In 2001, a central control room had compiled all the results and made final tabulations, creating bottlenecks. Officials jammed the phone lines to report their results, stalling the count. Before the centralized office could finish its tabulation, political parties would often declare their own results — lending the impression that the commission was "deliberately stymieing or withholding information," according to Calvin Benn, the commission’s deputy chief electoral officer. To avert this issue in 2006, the commission decentralized the process. Each region carried out vote tabulation and sent final tallies to the central control room, enabling secretariat staff to compute overall results more quickly. 

Communications improved by increasing phone capacity and backing up the system with a more robust radio network helped streamline the vote count. This enhanced technology helped the commission stay in touch with field offices throughout election day. Keith Lowenfield, assistant chief electoral officer for the commission, indicated that timely communications were essential to the smooth functioning of election day: "As [the day] unfolds, you must be in a position to know what is happening, or you will lose control." The network allowed managers to nip problems in the bud. For example, when the operations room learned that a presiding officer was violating rules on election day, officials removed him before he could do significant damage. 

While the elections commission worked to streamline electoral processes, other organizations addressed the human side of electoral strife. Starting in 2003, Guyana’s Ethnic Relations Commission and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began a Social Cohesion Program, organizing conversations between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese community members. Lawrence Lachmansingh, a Guyanese development consultant for the UNDP, explained: "Our calculation was, if there was a political conflict in Guyana, it was an ethnic conflict largely driven from the center, a nationally-driven problem. The people at the local level did not spontaneously combust." Because the interactions between the communities were so charged, the UNDP took the lead. It recruited local residents of diverse ethnic backgrounds with experience in regional development or youth work to set up more than 3,000 "conversations" countrywide. Trevor Benn of the UNDP explained that "one of the challenges in Guyana was that people did not have an opportunity to vent, and so these forums gave them an opportunity to do that." 

In the immediate run-up to the 2006 election, the Social Cohesion Program shifted focus, facilitating conversations among the political parties. It brought together the parties’ youth wings, particularly in areas prone to electoral violence. The UNDP also facilitated a three-day meeting of Guyana’s senior politicians. Roelf Meyer, a prominent conflict expert from South Africa, led the sessions. "[The politicians] all sat across from each other for three days, and they talked about the mistrust that each had with the other… You don’t usually get people to do that," said the UNDP’s Benn. As election day neared, prominent civil society and religious groups joined in the movement for peace. For instance, the Electoral Assistance Bureau (EAB), a local organization, recruited prominent Guyanese personalities to convey messages of peace over radio and television. 

The elections commission did however encounter a number of difficulties in carrying out its mandate. Lingering resentment about the decision to forego a new voter registry undercut public trust in the registration process. The commission’s information technology (IT) department, responsible for entering and storing voter registration data, had long battled allegations of data tampering. The elections commission struggled to find a qualified person to head the department. Surujbally recalled: "We had an Afro-Guyanese [person], and that person resigned in frustration and vexation because people were slandering him." His replacement, an Indo-Guyanese woman, also resigned for similar reasons. With financial assistance from UNDP, the commission brought in Gavin Campbell, a British citizen with relevant expertise, to head the IT department. By selecting a foreigner, the commission hoped to quell perceptions of political bias. Campbell, in turn, had difficulty finding people to help run the database: "One of the problems is finding people to do this fairly specialized database-type work, because that’s not the kind of work that exists in the private sector in Guyana," he said. 

Although the commission managed to address suspicions about the IT department, many opposition supporters still doubted the accuracy of the registry. When the commission released the final list of electors in July, one of the commissioners resigned in protest, "citing his inability to be further involved with a process that he believed had been discredited." This resignation, less than two months before the election, embarrassed the commission and hurt its credibility. More grievous events followed; a month before election day, four journalists were brutally killed in the outskirts of Georgetown. Afterwards, Surujbally recalled, "it emerged that my name was on an assassination list." 

Surujbally and his supporters in the commission decided to restore confidence in the electoral process by publicizing their readiness to hold elections before the planned date, emphasizing the commission’s capabilities and preparedness. But at the same time, three of the other elections commissioners held their own press conference "in which they said unanimously that the chairman was fooling the president in saying that we can bring off the elections, and fooling the nation at large," Surujbally reported. The chairman held another press conference in response, announcing a range of confidence-building measures, such as leaflets that detailed how to prevent voter fraud. Surujbally emphasized the importance of his resistance to external pressure: "Chairpersons can be intimidated massively whether because of tribalism, or politics, or just straight power." 

The 2006 election on August 28 was Guyana’s most peaceful in more than a decade. Although the incumbent PPP won its fourth consecutive election, the PNC opposition did not reject the result and their supporters did not react violently. Thanks to its revamped elections process, the commission was able to release results within three days of the voting, before rumors and frustration got out of hand. 

The Commonwealth’s observation mission noted a change in the media’s behavior: "Noticeably reduced from the airwaves was the diet of wild rumors, inflammatory statements and accusations, which in the past, served only to fuel flames of fear, doubt, tensions, and confusion during election campaigns." Commonwealth observers also noted the absence of incitement to violence or hatred at meetings they attended. Trevor Benn from the UNDP felt the Social Cohesion Program had made a positive contribution: "[Participants] felt that someone was listening, and that they didn’t need to use alternative means to get their point across." His colleague, Lawrence Lachmansingh, was more cautious, saying it was difficult to quantify the program’s "contribution to a peace process … particularly when so many others are involved." 

Rafael Trotman, the leader of a small party, echoed Lachmansingh’s hesitation in attributing success directly to any of the new measures. He contended that the elections were peaceful mainly because people were tired of violence. Vincent Alexander from the UNDP pointed to lower voter turnout as evidence of this fatigue. Indeed, voter turnout in 2006 was 20 percent lower than in 2001, with roughly 65,000 fewer votes cast — likely a contributing factor to the speedier vote tally in 2006. 

The elections commission itself weathered a number of storms in 2006. Although the commission generally managed to reach consensus, the polarized nature of its composition remained a looming issue. Chairman Surujbally helped minimize discord by abstaining on many votes, but the informal nature of his abstention did not betoken a permanent solution. 

Alexander of the UNDP saw hope for Guyana’s political future in local government reform: Overhauling local elections had the potential "to reduce the political stakes at the center, and therefore reverse the need for ethnic politics at the center." He envisioned a future in which effective local politics "could eventually lead to national politics being issue-based, rather than ethnic-based." Aubrey Norton, a senior PNC member, thought the solution lay elsewhere — specifically in power-sharing. He suggested that the two main parties would work together more if legislation required a two-thirds majority of parliament, rather than a simple majority. 

While many felt the interventions to reduce violence in 2006 were successful, ethnic tension re-emerged in the years after the 2006 elections, underscoring the work that remained. Remington Eastman of the Media Monitoring Unit worried that the media was fueling the renewal of tensions. "At the end of the [2006] elections, the media went back to its same old habits," he lamented. To reverse this backslide, the experiences of 2006 illustrated that successful elections required proactive initiative from many sectors: the elections commission, civil society, religious groups, international donors, and the media alike.