AFTER the long battles that followed their contentious elections, there has been a peaceful transfer of power in Guyana. On Sunday, August 2, 2020, 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+Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) 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.
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+AFC 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.
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. (Reprinted from the Jamaica Gleaner)