Sun | Sep 20, 2020

Editorial | Guyana clears the first hurdle

Published:Tuesday | August 4, 2020 | 12:11 AM

After the long battles that followed their contentious elections, there has been a peaceful transfer of power in Guyana. On Sunday, Mohamed Irfaan Ali was sworn in as the country’s president. In other words, the rule of law and constitutional order have prevailed.

That is good for Guyana’s democracy. It bolsters, too, the democratic credentials of this region, in particular the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), of which Guyana is a member. Perhaps those Caribbean leaders who, either directly or implicitly, proposed short-circuiting the legal processes, or those of us who were frustrated with the insubordination of the chief electoral officer, Keith Lowenfield, when he failed to report election results in accordance with the recounted votes, should, in retrospect, applaud the patience of the Guyana Electoral Commission (GECOM) and the leadership of its chairman, the retired judge, Claudette Singh. Had Justice Singh been less tolerant, and far more aggressive, the underlying, and always simmering, ethnic tensions in Guyana might have erupted into violence, making it difficult for President Ali and his People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) alliance to govern.

The election episode, though, is a reminder of the urgent work to be done on strengthening the political and governance frameworks, and critically, race relations, in Guyana. But in this scenario, this effort will be complicated by two separate and distinct factors that may cause their own tensions.

First, while power has been constitutionally transferred from President David Granger and his A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) administration, the legal contestations are not over. What, so far, has been settled by the courts was the GECOM’s authority to declare who won the presidency, and the make-up of the national assembly, on the basis of the recounted votes from the March 2 elections.

INITIAL REPORTS

After the election, it was initially reported – though not officially declared – that Mr Granger’s coalition had won a narrow victory, having, in its urban strongholds, where its mostly Afro-Guyanese backers live, gained sufficient votes to overcome a substantial lead by PPP/C in the regions where ethnic Indians, who primarily support the PPP/C, reside. In the midst of a controversy, the parties agreed to a recount monitored by CARICOM observers. That exercise gave PPP/C a narrow victory. However, the chief election officer, Mr Lowenfield, refused to endorse the numbers, arguing that significant levels of fraud discovered during the process meant that the election could not have been characterised as free and fair. His discounting of upwards of 100,000 ballots gave APNU victory by 15,000 votes.

The courts, having settled a number of jurisdictional questions, ruled that Mr Lowenfield could not institute his own numbers and was bound to follow the instruction of the GECOM and report the election’s outcome on the basis of the recounted ballots. Mr Granger has already promised that his party “will challenge the declared results lawfully, peacefully, and purposefully” – this time, on the basis of the procedures that the courts have ruled are open to it.

JAGDEO FACTOR

There seems to be agreement between the parties of the need to address Guyana’s governance issues. Nobody in this latest episode has framed the matter in the context of race and ethnicity, which they should. With respect to the government, much will depend not on the posture of President Ali, but of the PPP/C’s leader and a former president, Bharrat Jagdeo.

Mr Jagdeo, a protégé of the PPP/C’s founder, Cheddi Jagan, previously served as president between 1999 and 2011. Unable, by Guyana’s term-limit rules, to be his party’s presidential candidate after that, he ceded the position to Donald Ramotar, until Mr Granger’s coalition won the government in 2015. He has, however, remained in control of the party and was opposition leader in the last parliament.

Mr Jagdeo flirted with the idea of seeking the presidency in the March election but could not overcome the legal hurdle. He, however, was sworn in as a vice-president to Mr Ali. Mr Jagdeo, in the circumstances, will probably be the real power behind Mr Ali – the man with whom Mr Granger, or anyone who succeeds at the helm of APNU, will have to negotiate.

Hopefully, Guyana – its political parties and civil-society leadership – can move at multiple tracks at the same time. For as this newspaper has said several times, Guyanese cannot put off a serious conversation on the state of ethnic relations and of what is required to build bridges between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese. This cannot await court rulings on the election petitions or the internal dynamics of political parties.