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For more than a decade Future Notes has repeatedly argued that Guyana does not have a united public opinion able to hold governments accountable and that, therefore, shared governance must be the way forward. Recently the USAID’s ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Assessment’ in Guyana took a similar position. Upon coming to office after the controversial 2020 elections results, the PPP/C government stated its intention to have wide-ranging electoral reforms and contracted the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit ‘nonpartisan’ organisation associated with the Republican party of the United States seeking to advance ‘global freedom and democracy’, to help it manage this process. A poll conducted for IRI by a Latin American firm CID Gallup in January this year was a stratified survey consisting of face-to-face interviews in the homes of 1,500 Guyanese 18 years and over.
Before proceeding further I wish to restate the cardinal position that since in competitive political systems in which elections are what bring and remove governments from office, important decisions having to do with elections reforms/change/management, etc. should be arrived at by consensus. Therefore, in our ethnically divided society, the PPP government had no business to unilaterally engage IRI. The struggle that takes place between the Republicans and Democrats to get persons of their ideological bent on the US Supreme Court should be sufficient to indicate that concerns about ideological bias are not trivial, and it is one of the weaknesses of the opposition that it did not take a more substantial stand on this issue.
That said, this piece is based on articles on the poll in Demerara Waves on 15th April 2022, and the fact that that the mainstream media have not made a huge song and dance about its results is an indication that it should be taken seriously. I consider Guyana’s elections difficulties symptoms of a dysfunctional political system and much of what the poll shows in terms of general political relations is well known and allows Guyana to be categorized as largely a bicommunal society requiring special political treatment.
With regard to the credibility of elections results, only 38% of those polled believe that they reflected the will of the people and 51% believe they do not. 48% of Africans and 28% of Indians said ‘definitely no’ to the question on whether they believed that the declared official election results reflect the will of the people. 16% of Africans, 28% East Indians, 21% Indigenous, and 20% mixed said ‘definitely yes’.
These numbers do not necessarily point to a change in voting patterns but given the chronological closeness of the 2020 elections results, the PPP regime will not like them for they not only questions its legitimacy but again bring to the fore the issue of whether an ethnic government with such a miniscule majority has the moral authority to do as it pleases with the nation’s resources. In a politically competitive ethnic context, the current national management arrangement becomes particularly pernicious for political parties will of necessity favour their ethnic supporters and hence the sensibleness of shared/consensual governance.
One of the poll questions was ‘How common or uncommon is ethnic or racial discrimination of voters during election?’ I take this as asking ‘do people vote racially?’ and some 86% said it is a common practice. 64% of those polled said it is very common, 15% somewhat common, 7% common, 10% very uncommon and 5% didn’t know/ refused to answer. Some 86% of Africans, 86% Mixed people, 75% East Indians and 76% Indigenous people are of the view that racial discrimination is common during elections. None of this would be new to anyone vaguely associated with Guyana, although the political oligarchies of the two major parties continue to place great store in their so-called multi-ethnic nature! Importantly, these numbers also suggest that ethnicity not race is the driving force in Guyana’s politics and that the African/Mixed ethnicity has a similar experience and this largely accounts for the enhanced electoral position of the PNC.
89% of those polled had a level of concern about elections-related violence. 72% African, 66% Mixed, 64% Indo-Guyanese and 54% Indigenous Guyanese have this concern. As regards people feeling personally discriminated against during last 12 months, 38% felt ethnically discriminated against, 29% politically and 25% due to economic status. 82% of those polled felt discriminated against in one way or another. Indeed, ‘of the 578 respondents who felt discriminated against 33% were African, 41% East Indian, 8% Indigenous and 19% Mixed’. Uncertainty pervades these kinds of perceptions, but ethnic bias is rife in Guyana. When one’s group is in government one might feel somewhat less vulnerable but those on the other side are on the war path. Thus, to varying degrees, every group is to negatively affected.
Both of the large parties support electoral reforms and not surprisingly some 81% of Guyanese believe that the elections laws should be comprehensively reviewed. 60% believe that a comprehensive review is ‘very necessary’, 21 percent ‘somewhat necessary’ and overall 66% of those polled believe that legislative reforms could successfully address weaknesses in the current system.
The fact that Guyana is largely a bicommunal society in which the political leadership of the two major ethnic parties determines the nature of public opinion is here again laid bare and suggests that, as with all such countries, any major political change has to be led by the elites of these parties. Unfortunately, as the USAID report indicated, unless ‘the broader context of consensus and inclusion’ is properly addressed, if the 66% believe that electoral reforms could successfully deal with the weaknesses in of the current political system they will be sadly disappointed.