Democracy on Trial

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The Democracy in Guyana continues to be on trial. So far, there is no indication that the government is in a mood to pay heed to the international community’s unequivocal call for fair and transparent vote count in upholding the democratic principles. This is fraught with dangerous consequences due to likely isolation and prospects of sanctions

- Virendra Gupta

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People queue to vote in Guyana’s Presidential election in Georgetown, Guyana March 2, 2020 
People queue to vote in Guyana’s Presidential election in Georgetown, Guyana March 2, 2020
Serious irregularities in the elections held in the Caribbean nation Guyana last month have attracted worldwide attention. The global outrage and condemnation is perhaps reflective of the diminishing tolerance of attempts by manipulative rulers in subverting democratic and constitutional practices to sustain themselves in power at any cost.
The USA has been at the forefront in condemning the present Guyanese Government of David Granger for election malpractices and fraudulent declaration of his victory. Secretary of State Pompeo has himself expressed deep concern at the developments in Guyana warning it against electoral fraud urging that due processes laid down in the Guyanese constitution for vote count and tabulation must be followed in a credible and transparent manner before any declaration of results. The US Government officials have cautioned that no candidate should declare victory or be sworn in “while serious questions remained” and have also hinted at economic sanctions against Guyana if the issue was not resolved satisfactorily. Given USA’ s strong stand concerning election malpractices in Venezuela, which is next door, and the fact that it has invested considerable diplomatic efforts to mobilising a consensus in the regional body, Organisation of American States, for rejection of Maduro’s legitimacy, it is unlikely that USA would relent on its tough posture with regard to Guyana.
Guyana is a small country with a population of merely 0.8 million. But what is noteworthy from India’s standpoint is that over 40% of that population is of Indian origin having gone from our shores nearly two hundred years ago as indentured labour to work in the sugarcane plantations there. What makes Guyana unique for India is that it is one of the five countries in the world (others being Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago, and Suriname) where the Indian origin people constitute nearly half of the country’s population. Despite the geographical distance and the time span, Indian origin people in the Caribbean, who are also known as ‘Girmitiyas’, have always felt a special emotional and cultural bond with India and people in India fully share this empathy. West Indies cricketers Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharran, who are household names in India, are incidentally from Guyana.
Indian public opinion is naturally quite incensed at the recent unfortunate developments in Guyana. Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad (ARSP) which has been working for the last five decades for expanding India’s interface and outreach with its 30 million-strong diaspora across the world, has historically maintained close connections with Guyana. It has condemned the electoral malpractices committed by the present government and urged early completion of the election processes legally and transparently to preserve the fundamental essence of democracy and also the well-being, safety and rightful claim of the people of Indian origin there.
The Indian Government has also joined other governments, given its own experience as a vibrant and prosperous democracy, in underlining the importance of ensuring that electoral processes in Guyana are credible, fair and transparent in the assessment of the international community. This is a welcome step and we can look forward to increasing assertiveness on the part of our government with India’s growing clout on the world stage.
The genesis of the current political crises in Guyana can be traced to the no-confidence motion brought by Bharrat Jagdeo’s Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), comprising mainly of Indian origin people, against the ruling alliance in December 2018. President Granger-led coalition Government lost the no-confidence motion by 33-32 vote, but it refused to resign claiming wrongfully that the requisite majority did not pass the motion.
The ensuing legal battle ultimately landed in the Caribbean Court of Justice, based in Trinidad & Tobago, which ruled in June 2019 that the no-confidence motion was indeed validly passed. The court also instructed that a new neutral chairperson of GECOM be appointed for holding the elections. However, the government kept on delaying the election process on one pretext or the other and eventually held the polls only on March 2, 2020, thus continuing in power for an extraordinarily long period of more than 14 months after losing the no-confidence vote.
After the elections, the process of counting and tabulation of votes began. Guyana has 10 regions. The results of 9 regions were tabulated and finalised, which showed Bharrat Jagdeo led PPP leading by 52000 votes. Trouble started when the Returning Officer of the region 4, which is largest in the country, proceeded to declare the result of that region without verifying the numbers with the Statement of Polls as mandated by law, placing the ruling party ahead by a large number of votes to give it an overall countrywide lead. The opposition alleged that the vote count was grossly inflated and that in some cases the tabulation totals announced by the Returning Officer reflected more voters than on the list of eligible voters and that tabulation process was interrupted several times under heavy police guard raising serious questions about the fairness and impartiality of the process. It also claimed that based on the duly signed copies of the SOPs, available in its possession, the ruling party had lost the election.
The Commonwealth Observer Group, which was led by former PM of Barbados Owen Arthur and which also included a former Indian Election Commissioner also expressed grave concern at these developments. Asserting that the tabulation processes conducted by the RO for Region 4 were not credible, transparent and inclusive, it lambasted the Guyanese Election Commission for “serious and blatant instances of disregard for the rule of law and electoral ethics.”
There have been disturbing reports that credentials of international observers were sought to be revoked by GECOM and that they were asked to leave the premises where the tabulation of votes was taking place for the most populous region 4.
However, despite strong criticism from the international community and a specific court injunction restraining the Guyana Election Commission from declaring final results pending counting and tabulation in accordance with the law, the Commission proceeded to release the unverified results to the media which gave the ruling coalition one-seat majority in the 65 member Guyanese Parliament.
These developments have evoked universal condemnation from all concerned including the UN, CARICOM, Organization of American States and Carter Centre etc. The Governments of the USA, Canada, Britain and the European Union went so far as to declare that anybody “sworn in based on those results will not be considered legitimate.”
To resolve the impasse, it was agreed to have a total recount of all the 10 regions under the supervision of a high-level team of CARICOM. This was achieved through personal mediatory efforts of current Chairman of Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. It should be noted that the regional bodies in many parts of the world, including in Africa have begun to play an important role in dispute settlements and preservation /promotion of democracy. Earlier, she had called on all parties to work together “to achieve a peaceful and lawful completion of the electoral processes transparently in the presence of political party representatives as well as international observers.”
The CARICOM high-level team however was forced to withdraw because of the court action initiated by the ruling coalition, which was deeply regretted by CARICOM Chair who also warned that “any government sworn in without credible and fully transparent vote count process would lack legitimacy.”
Guyana has so far been an impoverished country marred by high rates of unemployment and poverty, but the recent discovery of huge oil reserves of around 6 billion barrels could catapult this nation to spectacular economic recovery. It is estimated that this tiny country could well be producing close to 750,000 barrels of crude a day by 2025. This has no doubt, led to increased world attention.
The Democracy in Guyana continues to be on trial. There is so far no indication that the government is in a mood to pay heed to the international community’s unequivocal call for fair and transparent vote count in upholding the democratic principles. This is fraught with dangerous consequences since likely isolation and prospects of sanctions could negatively impact on the plans for the economic recovery of the country despite the discovery of large oil reserves.
(The writer is a former IFS officer and Indian Ambassador to several countries. Amongst his various diplomatic assignments, he also served as Indian High Commissioner to Trinidad & Tobago. He is currently President of the Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad. Views are personal)