GUYANA: A Country in Chaos

By Bert Wilkinson
Interpress Service
January 5, 1998

GEORGETOWN, Jan 5 (IPS) - It was billed the most organised elections ever held in Guyana since universal adult suffrage was introduced back in 1953.

Unlike systems in previous elections which allowed for multiple voting and other documented irregularities, authorities not only made the use of official voter identification cards mandatory, but also tightened laws to make fraudulent acts a serious criminal offense.

Now, three weeks after the Dec. 15 poll, Guyana is facing a serious political crisis with life in the country at almost a standstill following mounting opposition protests against declared results and a court challenge by the main opposition party, the People's National Congress (PNC).

In its court challenge, the PNC has the backing of some of the other eight parties which contested the elections and it has already vowed to make the country ungovernable if the results are not overturned.

Business people, worried about the situation have kept steel plates on show windows and the US State Department has issued an advisory discouraging Americans from travelling to Guyana.

Some business people have reportedly offered cash payments to those they suspect of waiting for the opportunity to torch or loot their businesses in an effort to discourage any such action.

Investors, some of whom were near to closing deals with the last administration are backing away and neighbouring Venezuela is one of the very few countries to have recognised the new government.

Fears of more violence were confirmed Monday when a bomb blast caused extensive damage to a television station run by businessman Anand Persaud. Persaud is a known supporter of the People's Progressive Party and his Channel-69 outfit has been used extensively by the PPP both during the campaign and in the post Dec. 15 period for propaganda purposes.

The blast has left one person -- the station's security guard -- in a critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of the Georgetown Hospital. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since protest started shortly after the PPP's candidate Janet Jagan was declared winner and sworn in as President on Dec. 19.

Elections Commission Chairman, Doodnauth Singh had declared that with a lead of 45,000 votes over the PNC, there was no doubt as to who the winner was. The PNC disagreed and suggested that if the counting had been done properly they would have won the elections by at least 10,000 votes.

Riot police, backed by small army units have been under pressure to contain angry crowds of mostly PNC supporters who have vowed to continue their protest. In fact, PNC leader and former President Desmond Hoyte has publicly suggested he may be losing control of angry party activists.

To further heighten tension, several leading politicians and business people have sent their families overseas, while others are contemplating doing likewise.

Monday's explosion and continuing protests outside the court house have come after the party released advance copies of a post- election report by the Commonwealth Observer Group. Couched in diplomatic language, observers say the report has given more ammunition to the PNC by condemning the counting system and other instances of incompetence.

"There was a worrying disparity between the results that were agreed between the elections commission and party agents and those that were announced by the Chairman.

"We observed that the overall administration of the tallying process by the commission was not only not transparent but very poor. This exacerbated concerns already expressed by most party representatives, " said the document released to the media and posted on Internet web sites.

Meanwhile, a concerned Rupert Roopnarine, Presidential candidate for the Alliance for Guyana party which won one seat in the elections, sees the solution to the problem in a different kind of political system.

"This goes back to the call we have been making for the past 20 years. That is, we need a situation of some sort of power sharing. That has been clearly indicated by what is happening now," he said.

Roopnarine is referring to the nearly 50 years of tension between the country's two main race groups, Indo and Afro Guyanese. The majority Indian community --- 51 percent -- supports the PPP and the same is true of Afro Guyanese -- 39 percent -- as it pertains to the PNC.

Roopnarine, whose 20-year old party has consistently referred to itself as the country's multiracial alternative, says not much good will come of the country if a system of power sharing is not reached.

He interrupted a brief vacation to return to the city after state radio announced news of the bombing. Two weeks earlier, police had defused two explosive devices in a northern Georgetown district close to the private residence of President, Janet Jagan.

In the meantime, Roopnarine and other leaders are pushing for an international audit of the results.

And despite all this, Janet Jagan 77 has gone ahead and named nearly 20 members of her Cabinet in defiance of a court order barring her from performing duties as head of state until the situation is resolved.

Apart from actually naming a Cabinet, the administration has not made any binding decisions and appears unsure as to how it will govern in the coming months amid little international recognition, continuing pressure from the PNC, and investors threatening to take their business elsewhere.