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Some persons and forces both in and out of Guyana which endorsed the PPP as the rightful winners of the 2020 election and thus the legitimate government of Guyana have since had cause to protest the manner in which the government has ruled. There is a general unease that ranges from discomfort with the government’s failure to honor promises regarding the Oil sector to outright charges of ethnic discrimination and authoritarian rule. Most of these forces delink the developments since the election from the manner in which the election was decided. The question that they have refused to contend with is this: How can a government that was democratically elected thanks to democratic elections govern in such an anti-democratic manner?
Elections are an important aspect of democracy. Some forces may argue that is the most important ingredient in a democracy. We in Guyana for the most part equate elections with democracy. In other words, elections are seen as the sum-total of democracy. How often have we heard the refrain from one side of the political divide that democracy was saved when the 2020 elections were prevented from being rigged by the other major contestant. For those forces, all who did not support that narrative are in fact supporters of electoral malpractice and thus are enemies of democracy.
But democracy is much more than mere elections—elections cannot be seen in isolation from a larger democratic framework. The test of the democratic nature of elections lies not simply in the declaration of a winner and the endorsement by foreign observers. Democratic elections must arise out of a democratic process and must lead to democratic outcomes. If elections lead to anti-democratic governance, can they be deemed democratic?
Critically, do the electoral rules enjoy the confidence of all the contestants? In other words, are all contestants given an equal chance of success or winning? Who umpires the elections? Are the contestants also the umpires? If so, does one umpire have an advantage over other umpires? Do electors have equal opportunities to participate in the elections or do the rules discriminate against some electors? Further, are elections ends in themselves? Or are they means to an end? Do elections lead to socio-economic equality? Do elections engender political stability?
I pose the above questions to argue that there is danger in any formulation that situates elections as the only major factor in a democratic framework. Flawed elections lead to flawed outcomes and flawed outcomes lead to flawed democracy. That is the bind that Guyana has found itself in since Independence. This writer is contending that elections in and by themselves do not amount to democracy. Guyana is a politically troubled country. It has been so since the 1950s when the two major ethnic groups through their respective ethnic political parties began to compete for political power. In that scenario, elections became sites of ethno-political contestation for power. And the governments they have produced have reflected this zero-sum situation.
Then there is the question of legitimacy. A truly democratic government must enjoy legitimacy—a wide cross-section of the society, including those who did not vote for it, must accept the right of the government to govern. No election since 1957 has produced a government that has enjoyed cross-ethnic legitimacy. Governments arise from ethnic voting patterns which have afforded them limited legitimacy. Studies have shown that governments with limited legitimacy often degenerate into authoritarian rule because they use the power at their disposal to coerce loyalty or to punish real and perceived detractors.
I discuss the above to argue that the 2020 elections were not democratic. In fact, they were perhaps the most rigged election since 1992. From the votes list to the tabulation of the votes, the process was heavily tainted. Both major contenders were able to target areas where they thought the other was culpable. Hence the five-month impasse. In the end the elections were decided by a combination of deliberate ignoring of the complaints of one contestant and coercion by external actors. It was an outcome that was bound to lead to instability and dictatorial rule. It is a development that the recent USAID report on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance has highlighted and signaled that the country cannot withstand its impact.