Ethnic Conflict Threatens Democracy in Guyana

The country’s simmering ethnic tensions threaten to undermine a fragile democratic system and bring on the resource curse before the proceeds from massive offshore oil discoveries arrive.

A street vendor sits next to banners of the presidential candidate for the National Unity and Alliance for Change party (APNU+AFC) David Granger, in Georgetown, Guyana, on March 1, 2020.
A street vendor sits next to banners of the presidential candidate for the National Unity and Alliance for Change party (APNU+AFC) David Granger, in Georgetown, Guyana, on March 1. Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

It has been more than three weeks since Guyana’s March 2 elections, and there is still no final result. The process has become mired in controversy over the final tabulation of the votes in the most populous electoral district, which encompasses the capital of Georgetown.

The incumbent A Partnership for National Unity-Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC) coalition claimed victory on the back of vote margins from this district, which were thrown out once by the High Court for not following lawful tabulation procedures and then officially announced again following procedures international observers maintain are still not credible. The opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP), which APNU-AFC ousted in 2015 after 23 years in power, and other political parties claim that transparent final tabulation of results will show that the PPP won.

Public unrest over the contested result has already claimed the life of one young protester. Racist and threatening social-media posts have proliferated, and the nation is on tenterhooks over the potential for further violence and what will come of its fragile democracy. Despite an attempt by the Caribbean Community, a regional body, to supervise a full recount of ballots, the process remains incomplete and mired in controversy.

International attention on Guyana has traditionally been nonexistent, but that’s changing. In the five years since the first discovery of oil in the offshore Stabroek block, more oil has been discovered in Guyana’s offshore waters than anywhere else in the world. The Exxon-led consortium responsible for these finds recently announced its 16th discovery, which would add to the 8 billion barrels already identified.

Companies such as Tullow and Repsol have also made finds, and Total has joined exploration as well. The discoveries are anticipated to triple Guyana’s gross domestic product in the coming years, from $4,715 in 2018 to $14,359 in 2023 in per capita terms, potentially making the Guyanese people the richest in the region.

While the discoveries have yet to touch the Guyanese economy, they have spurred a cottage industry of international press about the potential “resource curse” that oil could bring. Most of these articles argue Guyana is not ready because of weak institutions that could lead to potential corruption. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, journalists have ignored the underlying ethnic conflict that has held back the country’s development for 50 years and that now threatens to undermine democracy and peace.

The predicament in which the country finds itself was tragically predictable. Guyanese of African and Indian descent make up the two largest demographic blocks of the multicultural, English-speaking nation. Indo-Guyanese, descended from indentured laborers imported to work the colonial sugar plantations after the emancipation of enslaved Africans, hold the largest population share of any ethnic group in the country, but their share has been declining. The two groups are seen to support different political parties, Indo-Guyanese the PPP and Afro-Guyanese the People’s National Congress Reform (PNC), which is the dominant force behind the APNU-AFC coalition.

These realities and a winner-take-all constitution interact to create a toxic system that pits the two communities against each other in every election. Under Guyana’s proportional representation electoral system, it takes a mere plurality of votes to win the powerful presidency and appoint the cabinet. Under its party-list system, post-election coalitions are not permitted and parliamentarians are accountable to party chiefs rather than constituents.

There are few checks and balances in the system, although the High Court enjoys widespread confidence. The binary logic of the system effectively marginalizes the concerns of the country’s indigenous peoples—and their unfulfilled land claims—and those of mixed-race people and other ethnicities in the country known as the “Land of Six Peoples,” and of those who simply want to live as Guyanese without a hyphen.

The result is a politics of fear, exploited by political leaders on both sides, driven by concerns over ethnic exclusion, marginalization, and victimization. PPP supporters fear that the PNC will rig elections to stay in power, leaning on Afro-Guyanese predominance in the police, military, and in the capital city, as they did for 28 years during the Cold War from 1964 to 1992 (with the West’s connivance).

Afro-Guyanese fears are rooted in their numerical disadvantage relative to Indo-Guyanese, which was brought home over the 23 years from 1992 to 2015 under successive elected PPP administrations, and the perception of growing economic inequalities. The imperative of preventing the other side from controlling the proceeds of oil, and thus entrenching one’s advantage to the other’s exclusion, animate the fears of each of the major rivals.

Every nation struggles with its demons, but the U.S. government bears unique responsibility for some of Guyana’s. In the 1960s, the CIA’s manipulation of Guyana’s ethnic rivalries for Cold War ends had tragic and disfiguring impacts on the nascent body politic and the Guyanese state. Fearing that an independent Guyana under the PPP would align itself with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the United States pressured the United Kingdom, then Guyana’s colonial master, into changing the election system at independence to install the more ideologically palatable PNC. The ethnic violence unleashed during that era still scars the country today.

A winner-take-all constitution creates a toxic system that pits the two communities against each other in every election.

The PNC presided over a socialist economic experiment and electoral manipulation that resulted in louder and louder calls for democratic elections. The advent of democratic elections did not bring a durable peace to Guyana, however. With the benefit of its ethnic plurality and winner-take-all system, the PPP won successive democratic, although highly contested, elections from 1992 to 2011, as Afro-Guyanese grew increasingly angry and hopeless under a system they believed denied them any chance to regain power or check the excesses of the government.

From 1998 to 2008, episodes of ethnic violence triggered by winner-take-all elections traumatized the nation and dragged a new generation into the conflict. This period was marked by human-rights abuses, the emergence of Guyana as a nascent narcostate, extrajudicial killings, and economic marginalization that overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, afflicted Afro-Guyanese.

The Indo-Guyanese community perceived that successive PPP governments were perpetually under siege by a recalcitrant PNC unwilling to accept election losses and intent on getting into government “through the back door.” Some felt it was an attempt to undermine the government in an echo of the 1960s era of destabilization campaigns.

Years in the political wilderness forced reflection in parts of the PNC, which developed a broad-tent approach in forming the APNU coalition in 2011. This led to some electoral success in 2015 as part of the six-party APNU-AFC coalition when it joined a pre-election coalition with the multi-racial AFC and ousted the PPP, which had become beleaguered with perceptions of corruption. President David Granger styled himself as leading a broad, multiracial government of reconciliation, but met steadfast resistance from the PPP. The period was a reminder that one doesn’t make peace with one’s friends.

With the discovery of oil in 2015 the country became increasingly polarized, and the 2020 election loomed as a flash point. Each side attempted legal maneuvers to tilt the electoral system to their advantage. A private citizen brought a court case in late 2014 to challenge a provision of the constitution that prevented Bharrat Jagdeo, the PPP opposition leader and former two-term president, from running for a third presidential term.

Opposition politicians in Guyana regularly pledge to reform the winner-take all system, but seem to lose passion for their principles once they get into government.

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Guyana’s final court of appeal, upheld the provision in 2018. Granger later broke two decades of precedent by appointing the chair of the election commission without the consent of the opposition, a decision that was later overturned by the CCJ in 2019.

Amid these escalating moves and countermoves, the system finally ruptured when the PPP brought a no-confidence motion against the APNU-AFC coalition government in December 2018. An Indo-Guyanese coalition member of Parliament crossed the floor and voted with the opposition, bringing down the government. PNC leaders called it an act of treachery and the party’s base vowed that after 23 years of PPP rule they would not accept just four. The government refused to step down and hold elections within the 90-day period mandated by the constitution and tied the matter up in courts for as long as it could, before eventually submitting to elections with both major ethnic communities angry, suspicious, and on edge.

The Carter Center, which helped support Guyana’s democratic transition in the early 1990s and has observed five of the country’s elections, has long staked out the position that the winner-take-all system is not right for Guyana. This is the position of many civil-society groups and, more quietly, politicians within the main parties themselves. However, opposition politicians in Guyana regularly pledge to reform the winner-take all system, but seem to lose passion for their principles once they get into government.

While both parties are to blame, the system favors the PPP because of the numerical superiority of its ethnic base. When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited the country in 2004 as the parties were mired in a protracted dispute over how to make governance more inclusive, he noted that the PPP “takes full advantage of the ancient ‘winner take all’ system in Guyana” and concluded: “There is little prospect for either substantial economic or social progress unless there is a truce in the political wars. No one party should bear the blame…. This problem can be solved only with basic constitutional changes in the system of governance.” These words ring true today.

The reality is that both sides, for different reasons, fear being ruled by the other.When the controversial vote tabulation process fell apart three weeks ago, a viral video captured a senior executive of the PNC screaming “Murderers, y’all are murderers!” at a crowd of PPP leaders who yelled back at her “Riggers, riggers!” The exchange sadly captured the visceral emotions at play. The reality is that both sides, for different reasons, fear being ruled by the other.

There are no real winners for Guyana under this system. Its incompatibility with the mutual security of all of its major ethnic groups has been laid bare by these elections. Guyanese elder statesmen and civil-society groups have called for their leaders to take this opportunity to break the endless cycle of division and recriminations. There have been calls for a unity government, power sharing, and even a truth-and-reconciliation commission to help the country sort out its contested history and heal. Constitutional reform of the winner-take-all system must finally be put on the national agenda and treated seriously.

Many countries at similar crossroads, such as Guatemala and Tunisia, have chosen national dialogue as a means of seeking consensus on a way forward. To be effective, a dialogue must be well designed, address root causes of conflicts, be widely inclusive of all stakeholders, and have credible facilitators.

Such a process in Guyana would also have to address ruptured relationships and the fears of its various communities. It would not be easy, but could pave the way for acknowledging historical grievances, generating ideas for a more acceptable political system as a precursor to constitutional reform, identifying principles for equitably sharing oil revenues, and providing a public opportunity for everyone to commit to healing.

With the international community threatening sanctions and isolation if flawed election results are certified, Guyana’s leaders stand at a fork in the road. They can choose to repeat the errors of the past, or honestly face what this election has revealed and choose a route to reconciliation, constitutional reform, and a secure future for all Guyanese.

Jason S. Calder is the head of the Washington office of Saferworld, an international peacebuilding organization. He has observed four elections in Guyana and his experience with the country spans 25 years. Twitter: @JasonCalder15

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