“WHAT a saga!” says my London editor. Well, yes. Guyana’s racial-political soap opera has been running since at least 1953, when Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill suspended the constitution and sent in the army. He did not like that year’s election result. The chief minister, Cheddi Jagan, and his wife Janet were jailed for six months.
After a 67-year run, why stop the show?
But we may be close to the cliff-hanging final episode of the current season, which started with 2018’s pre-Christmas parliamentary vote of no confidence in David Granger’s coalition government. That should have triggered an election in March last year, installing (or re-installing) a government which would now be well into its second year.
Granger’s supporters never accepted the legitimacy of that no-confidence vote. Their delaying tactics held over the election until March 2 this year—and now, more than four months on from that poll, we still don’t have a declared winner.
Except, everyone knows that the opposition candidate Irfaan Ali won, with just 50.7 per cent of the vote. There are plenty of reasons not to like Irfaan—not least, he faces corruption charges stemming from his time as housing minister. But he got the most votes.
That was the preliminary result from polling stations on election night, and that was the result from a painstaking 34-day Caricom-supported recount, completed on June 8.
Getting that result translated into a formal declaration and a swearing in is the job of the Guyana Elections Commission.
The commission has three government nominees and three from the opposition, with the casting vote for the chairperson, Claudette Singh. She is a former judge, appointed to her current post with support from both sides in July last year.
During the recount and after, the chief elections officer Keith Lowenfield argued that a big slice of the votes were not valid. The government nominees supported him.
On June 16, after heated debates, Claudette Singh told Lowenfield to prepare a report based on the recount numbers. So, that would mean an opposition lead.
The Elections Commission, she said, was not the right place to settle disputes over valid votes. Any quibbles should be raised later through an election petition, and decided by the high court.
But on June 22, Guyana’s Court of Appeal ruled that Lowenfield should count only “valid” votes cast. That gave him licence to do some creative counting. He rushed out a report which junked more than a quarter of the ballots, putting Granger narrowly in the lead.
Then on Wednesday this week, the Caribbean Court of Justice, meeting online, set aside the Court of Appeal ruling—and along with it Lowenfield’s report.
So where does that leave us? The CCJ did not spell out what should happen next. So it’s back to the Elections Commission.
The commission was to meet yesterday afternoon. But plenty people expected the government nominees to play for time by not turning up.
Government supporters still argue that thousands of votes were not “valid.” The opposition nominees say the opposite. It looks like a three-three split, so we’ll be back to Claudette Singh’s casting vote. And I can’t see any reason she’ll have changed her mind.
So that would mean the same instruction she gave to Lowenfield on June 16—write a report based on the recount results.
Lowenfield has a mind of his own, as we’ve seen many times since March 2, and indeed before. But if it comes to the crunch, she may be able to bypass him, and move to a declaration. So, more delays, but no roadblocks.
The next step would be for the new president to be sworn in by the Chancellor of the Judiciary, the senior appeal court judge.
Meanwhile, what have Granger and his supporters been saying?
Granger spoke briefly to a small crowd of supporters outside his State House residence on Wednesday afternoon. As always, he chose his words carefully. He said: “There has been massive fraud and irregularities and we will continue the fight to make sure that your votes are counted.”
He said: “There are some bad elements out there who tried to manipulate the vote.”
He said: “The matter is not closed, it now has to go back to the Elections Commission.”
He said: “We still have to be patient.”
Four months on from the election, patience is wearing thin.
Opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo says: “There is a small group of people who are hell-bent on not conceding.” He may be right.
Installing a new president will not guarantee good governance as Guyana spends its new oil wealth—far from it. What will be needed is a strong and electorally credible opposition, and an independent judiciary.
Says David Hinds, a prominent supporter of Granger’s coalition: “This is about holding Guyana together. You don’t go through four months of turmoil and stress to get an election result and think that everything is going to be okay once a winner is declared.”
Still, there’s no Winston Churchill around to suspend the constitution and send in the troops. Let’s give thanks for small mercies.
• Mark Wilson is an independent
journalist based in Port of Spain