Guyana's Hard Road To Free Elections

By , Steven Griner is a program officer for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

TODAY, after almost two years of delays, Guyana will finally elect a new president and parliament. President Desmond Hoyte of the long-ruling National Congress faces Cheddi Jagan of the People's Progressive Party.

Since 1964, every election in the country has been marred by flagrant fraud, but many Guyanese believe this time will be different. Former President Jimmy Carter, who pressured for electoral reforms and is leading an observer delegation, deserves much of the credit. Free elections in Guyana would not have been possible, however, without the persistence of Guyanese leaders who helped install safeguards to prevent electoral cheating. Now, the responsibility of ensuring that democracy in Guyana continues af ter election day lies with them.

Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America with a population of approximately 700,000, exhibits great potential for economic as well as political development. Before independence from Britain in 1966, a well-educated population contributed to a growing economy and an active civic community.

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A new constitution in 1980, however, granted President Forbes Burnham and the People's National Congress (PNC) absolute control over government and the economy. The economy declined and Guyanese migrated by the droves.

Today, Guyanese are cautiously optimistic and the once-thriving civic community has assumed a crucial role in the electoral process. In June 1991, a handful of prominent Guyanese civic leaders created a nonpartisan organization, the Elections Assistance Bureau (EAB), to monitor the electoral process in Guyana and increase citizen participation.

In the face of threats to its volunteers, the EAB conducted a door-to-door check on the voter registry, believed by many to be hopelessly flawed. The results of the survey confirmed these suspicions. Faced with this evidence, President Hoyte agreed to implement the reforms recommended by Mr. Carter and revamp the defective list.

A new election commissioner was appointed and many high officials replaced. The law was amended to provide that polling officials would count ballots at the polling tables in view of party poll watchers and not at district centers as originally envisioned. With the assistance of civic groups such as the EAB, party leaders urged members to check their names on the voter registry and correct errors of deletions.

AFTER election day, ethnic tension will present the greatest challenge to democracy in Guyana. Shortly before Guyana's independence, in the early 1960's, parties encouraged apan jhaat, a Hindi expression meaning "vote your race." The parties then polarized along racial lines. Sparked by elections in 1962, rioting erupted throughout the country. Indians fled Georgetown and other black sections of the country; rural blacks sought safe haven in the urban centers of the country.

Racial violence of this magnitude has not occurred since, but apan jhaat voting is likely to continue. People's Party candidate Mr. Jagan is supported by many Indo-Guyanese in the rural parts of the country. The Indian community is often at odds with the Afro-Guyanese who generally support the Hoyte government and dominate the bureaucracy in Georgetown.

Economic reform, to some extent, is a racial issue. In response to increasing economic deterioration, Hoyte has privatized many state-owned enterprises and has pursued increased trade with the United States. Jagan has expressed his reservations concerning the many privatizations, especially of the sugar industry that provides jobs to thousands of his Indian supporters.

Once the observers pack their bags and leave, Guyanese leaders will face the vexing issues of ethnic tension and economic decline. These problems, always prevalent in the history of Guyana, will surface with renewed vigor in the more open society, as they have in Eastern Europe. After election day, the Guyanese leaders who ensured a fair voting process will face the daunting challenge of finding peaceful solutions, no matter who wins.

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