Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

GUYANA is back from the brink. For now, and barely so.

Last week Friday, big trouble seemed imminent. We had disputed results from the Monday election, protests in Indo-Guyanese villages, a 19-year-old shot dead, and three police in hospital from their injuries.

Right now, all is quiet. But maybe too quiet. Georgetown has none of its usual buzz.

And quiet, that is, unless you’re selling bleach. Or Lysol. Or wipes. Or Vitamin C. Guyana had its first coronavirus death on Wednesday, an unfortunate 52-year-old woman who had just arrived from New York. A planeload of fellow passengers must now be at risk, along with their onward contacts.

But quiet is a lot better than the wrong sort of noisy. If the rule of law holds, credit goes to Guyana’s judiciary, plus international observers from the Commonwealth, the European Union, the OAS and the Carter Centre. Plus a bevy of local observers and international diplomats.

And Caricom leaders—Keith Rowley included—who took time out from coronavirus, quarantined cruise ships and crashing financial markets to travel to Georgetown two days ago.

It’s not like it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when Forbes Burnham and his successor Desmond Hoyte could fudge elections wholesale. Hoyte claimed close to 80 per cent of the vote in 1985, and got away with it. There was no internet, no TV, a state-owned radio monopoly, and in print, only the state-owned Guyana Chronicle. Even an international phone call cost an arm and a leg.

Last week’s count gave us a more-or-less agreed result in nine of Guyana’s ten regions. The exception was Region Four—Georgetown and its surroundings. Trouble is, Region Four has knocking on for half the votes.

Georgetown is mainly Afro-Guyanese, and a stronghold of President David Granger’s governing coalition, in power since its narrow 2015 election win. Without Georgetown and Region Four, the mainly Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party would win every time.

With Georgetown, Granger won in 2015 by fewer than 5,000 votes—just over one per cent of the national total.

This time round, the overall results were interesting. Based on media reports, the number of votes was 14 per cent higher than last time—despite a more-or-less static national population. There were more than 630,000 names on the voters’ list, with no mechanism for removing those who have emigrated. Based on the 2012 census, the over-18 population of Guyana is around 455,000.

In each of the ten regions, there is a preliminary count at each polling station, and a statement of poll signed by the local presiding officer. Political party representatives sign off on the statement of poll, and keep a copy. The main copy is sent to the regional returning officer—for Region Four, that was one Clairmont Mingo. His job was to tally the polling station results in the presence of party representatives and observers, and report the result to the Elections Commission. That system was developed for the 1992 election on Carter Centre advice, to prevent blatant cheating.

In the other nine regions, that process ran fairly smoothly. In Region Four, it dissolved into a party representatives’ shouting match. Possibly stressed out, Mingo was taken to hospital on a stretcher. The count continued in his absence. But only 421 of the 879 statements of poll were properly verified with party representatives and election observers present.

Riot police were called to his office on Thursday to keep protestors at bay. An attempt to announce a final count was abandoned as government and opposition supporters yelled from adjacent escalators outside his office. Instead, a public relations officer sent Mingo’s results to the media by WhatsApp.

Based on his own version of the Region Four count, opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo claims that his party won nationally by 15,888 votes. Using Mingo’s totals, Granger’s coalition would have won by 7,638.

The opposition went swiftly to the courts, and won an interim injunction to block the Elections Commission from proclaiming a national result using Mingo’s figures. On Wednesday afternoon, the chief justice ruled that Mingo must complete the Region Four count using the statements of poll, with party representatives and observers present. He was to decide the exact procedure, and start the process by 11.00 yesterday morning. In principle, it should not take long. Unless there are unforeseen hiccups. Which there may well be.

Guyana is split down the middle by race, as it has been since the 1950s. Despite a proportional representation system purpose-built to help smaller groups, there’s no significant Amerindian or other balancing force.

Despite falling prices, oil cash rolls in from this year. There’s a blithe acceptance of corruption. The Registrar of Deeds—a significant legal official—was found guilty this week of paying securities worth US$22,000 into her own bank account. Her penalty? Just pay back the funds to the state, nothing more. A businessman who acted last week as an election observer for the Private Sector Commission was in New York this week, facing cocaine charges for which he skipped bail in 2008.

Guyana should be celebrating. But whatever the Region Four count says—and we may know by this morning—the more likely outlook is confrontation and coronavirus.

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