By Wazim Mowla | First published in Global Americans on June 11, 2020
It’s been more than three months since Guyana’s national and regional elections and the country is close to having a winner formally declared—after a transparent and credible electoral process. However, with the electoral crisis nearing its end, Guyana must overcome a final hurdle before democracy is restored in the country. Things appeared to be heading in the right direction when the incumbent, A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition, reversed its stance on the votes casted on election day, agreeing elections were free and fair.
Initially, the tabulation process was the only part of the election considered fraudulent. But following protests from Guyana’s opposition, the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), as well as smaller political parties and the international community, a national recount was brokered between President David Granger and opposition leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, by a high-level delegation from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
However, with the recount completed and the PPP/C securing victory, another change in rhetoric by the APNU+AFC has not only put the entire electoral process at risk, but further endangers the preservation of Guyana’s democracy, leaving the country vulnerable to isolation from the international community.
On June 3, the APNU+AFC coalition declared that “any results emanating from this [recount] process cannot be considered credible because of the high incidence of fraud.” APNU+AFC’s statement is reminiscent of the coalition’s comments during the recount process, when it argued that dead, missing, and persons outside the country were found to have voted on election day.
Although Granger declared on numerous occasions that he will accept GECOM’s decision on a winner, on a June 6 statement, he maintains that irregularities during the voting process “appear to have been committed intentionally, not accidentally, and demonstrate a pattern of manipulation of the electoral process.” This suggests that although the physical recounting of votes is completed, the recount’s next stages might face contention.
Although these accusations and issues were raised with the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), the body statutorily responsible for overseeing and conducting the recount, insufficient evidence has been publicly brought forward by APNU+AFC. Instead, the PPP/C and other participating political parties, as well as their supporters, maintain that the allegations mentioned by APNU+AFC are not based on facts.
Any claims from the APNU+AFC coalition that the recount should be nullified is worrisome for stakeholders both in and out of Guyana. Part of the reason the recount was agreed upon by Granger and Jagdeo, at the urging of CARICOM, was that the votes casted by the country’s citizens are credible in the eyes of the observer missions that were present on election day. For APNU+AFC to now suggest otherwise, would not only mean that the past three months were wasted, but that democracy in Guyana might face additional challenges.
A rupture of democracy as a result of the electoral crisis will mean that the country’s government failed its people. For Guyana, democracy is vital to its development, and this is best explained by the country’s first democratically elected leader, President Cheddi Jagan. In a 1994 paper for the United Nations-sponsored World Hearings on Development, Jagan argued that democracy, as it relates to development, requires a people-centered program that is participatory with people’s empowerment at all levels of society. This argument is as true today as it was in 1994, meaning that political leaders in Guyana must adhere to democratic principles for the benefit of the country’s citizens.
In addition, a prolonged challenge to democracy in Guyana might see the country subjected to sanctions and isolation, making it more difficult for democracy to be restored at a later date. Thus far, the U.S. official position remains that any Guyanese political leader or electoral official involved in a fraudulent electoral process will be subject to sanctions. While nullifying the electoral process is not the same as electing an illegitimate leader, patience with Guyana could run its course. This is a likely scenario as the administration of President Donald Trump has proven that its culture of applying sanctions to “bad actors” governs its foreign policy to Latin American and Caribbean states—with the notable exception of Haiti’s Jovenel Moïse.
Beyond the United States, Guyana’s membership to international and regional organizations will be questioned if the electoral process is voided. Recently, the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretariat, which had a two-member delegation present for the recount, argued that it “has no reason to doubt that the result emanating from the recount will be credible.” This statement was preceded by OAS observers who argued that they were not provided with the appropriate documents needed, during the initial electoral process and the recount, to conduct a thorough analysis of Guyana’s elections.
Failure to comply with the OAS delegation—which is asking for documents required under an elections procedure agreement between the organization and GECOM—might result in Guyana’s suspension. And although there is not an observer mission present, the Commonwealth could produce a case where Guyana also faces suspension from the group. Further, in terms of CARICOM, while the Caribbean Community will not outright abandon Guyana, a voided recount process, of which CARICOM has presided over, will put a significant strain on the country’s relations with the regional body.
Simply, the international community will only remain patient with Guyana if it believes that democracy is still viable in the country. A government perceived to be illegitimate will be treated as an outcast. To respect Guyana’s democratic principles, GECOM’s Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield, will have to prepare the recount’s observation report by June 13, and from its findings, GECOM will declare the appropriate winner by June 16. To assure the international community of Guyana’s commitment to transparency, this process must be conducted quickly and smoothly. Only after a winner is declared, can APNU+AFC use legal means afforded to them by Guyana’s constitution to challenge the recount through an election petition in the country’s courts.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University, a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and an intern for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS.
A citizen, Eslyn David, supported by the APNU+AFC coalition, moved to the Court of Appeal on June 18 seeking orders, including an injunction blocking what seemed poised to be a declaration that would have given a victory to the PPP/C opposition party based on the certified recount results. While no injunctions were granted, the court was asked to, and provided; an interpretation of the words “more votes are cast” in Article 177 (2) (b) of the Constitution of Guyana. The court interpreted the words to mean “more valid votes cast” in relation to the March 2 elections.
As a result of this, the Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield submitted a report to the Chair of GECOM on Tuesday, June 23, which reflected a 1 seat majority outcome for the APNU+AFC, based on his analysis/interpretation of ‘valid’ votes. On the same day, the PPP/C moved to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) – Guyana’s highest court – to challenge the Court of Appeal’s jurisdiction and ruling in the case filed by David.
The CCJ has issued an order blocking GECOM from making a declaration and could begin hearing the case by July 1.