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Could the Guyana Elections Experience Be a Lesson for the Caribbean?

OAS Team Observes General Elections in Guyana on May 11, 2015. Photo by the OAS, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

OAS Team Observes General Elections in Guyana on May 11, 2015. Photo by the OAS, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

General elections took place in Guyana nearly a month ago and some Caribbean blogs are insisting that the event — and its results — were not given the requisite level of attention by the rest of the region.

After the political dust had settled, the country learned it would be swearing in a new president, as a new entity — the APNU–Alliance for Change, a more modern construct that crossed race and class lines — took hold of the reins of power.

In November of last year, then-President Donald Ramotar of the ruling People's Progressive Party prorogued the country's parliament for six months (discontinuing the body, without dissolving it) to avoid a no-confidence vote. There was much talk of dictatorship, saying that the decision flew in the face of the country's constitution, as well as concern about polarising voters in a country that has a bitter history of racial politics.

In a guest post at Barbados Underground, St. Kitts and Nevis national Donya Francis was perturbed, not just about how long it took for the official election results to be released, but about the lack of pressure placed on the country from regional governments:

What happened in Guyana after the elections? Where were the results? Is this going to be a trend that the Caribbean will be following? […]

The silence from the other Caribbean leaders on the late announcement of the results was very appalling.

Recalling that a similar situation happened in her home country in February 2014, she added:

The Caribbean electoral systems need to be relooked at and be fixed immediately. They are failing the democratic nature of the region.

Certain members of the media were paying attention, however. Journalist and blogger Vernon Ramesar interviewed fellow journalist Wesley Gibbings on the “post-election situation in Guyana”, saying it was “an interesting story for the region”:

The pair pointed out that Guyana's electoral system was structured slightly differently from the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, in that it allowed for an executive president; most other regional territories follow the Westminster system, in which the head of government is the prime minister.

Gibbings explained that there are two systems working in tandem in Guyana: a list system (which accounts for 40 of the 65 seats in parliament) and a regional representative system (which comprises the other 25 seats) — essentially, two elections in one. “Technically,” Gibbings says, “it's a presidential election.”

In that light, it is no surprise that Ramotar was ousted, given the public reaction to his proroguing of parliament. In the Guyanese system, a minority government is a possibility, since plurality is what counts — and that is exactly the reality that emerged after these elections. In an ironic twist of fate, however, the current government might well find that it faces the same challenges as the previous administration, which was often unable to pass budgets or legislation, as the (combined) majority opposition would routinely vote against them. Gibbings referred to the APNU element of the coalition as “essentially the People's National Congress (PNC) [last in opposition] wearing a different hat”.

In the past, Guyana has traditionally voted along ethnic lines, with voters of Indian descent supporting the People's Progressive Party and Afro-Guyanese primarily casting their ballots for the PNC. There are similar tribal voting patterns in Trinidad and Tobago, one of Guyana's closest CARICOM neighbours, but apparently the trend is changing in Guyana.

Gibbings also made a critical point that shed light on why the results may have taken so long to be released to the public:

The electoral laws […] have not been changed since the 1992 election, which is considered to have been the first free and fair elections since the elections of the 60s in Guyana. Within that time, technology, for example, has changed – so that the current regulation that speaks to the receipt of statements of poll for the results dictate that that information cannot be relayed electronically.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Ramesar/Gibbings interview however, is that they discussed the series of unfortunate events that unfolded in the Guyanese parliament after the opposition attempted to pass the no-confidence vote. Gibbings raised the St. Kitts and Nevis parallel and Ramesar made the point that Trinidad and Tobago has had several instances of attempts at “no confidence” votes in parliament. The common denominator seemed to be the presence of coalition governments. With Trinidad and Tobago set to have general elections later this year, a local blog, which posts in dialect, thought that “de action close tuh home an could have implications”:

What in de public domain about de Guyanese election is dat it take de better part of five days after votin done tuh have ah formal announcement of who win. Earlier tuhday, Saturday, ah new president get sworn in. He name David Granger. Even while dat was happenin de now former president, Donald Ramotar was issuin ah statement dat included dis gem:

‘Once again we are being removed from office, not through the will of our people, but by electoral manipulations.’ […]

Bottom line? Bacchanal Guyanese style. […] Can what happenin in Guyana happen in T&T?

The blogger finally deduced that it couldn't, since in his opinion, the Trinidad and Tobago electorate was “more mature”. He conceded, however, that the current opposition could very well win the upcoming elections, saying:

Democracy indeed alive an well in T&T albeit Trini style.

Somebody should print dat orn ah tee shirt before elections. It go sell.

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