Guyana’s general election has the country on the brink of social unrest. The election, celebrated on March 2, resulted in both the government and opposition claiming victory amidst cries of foul play. The troubled election epitomizes the immense pressure the political system is under since a series of offshore oil discoveries turned one of Latin America’s poorest countries into an oil exporter overnight. The problems arising from the election suggest that the natural resource curse is already making significant inroads in the country—forcing into question the prospects for further development and democratization.
Two rival parties have historically dominated Guyanese politics. Although there is some competition based on ideological grounds, parties mostly align voters along ethnic lines. The country’s ethnic cleavage is the result of centuries of Dutch and British colonial rule that oversaw a massive influx of slaves from Africa and indentured labor from India. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) mostly appeals to the country’s Indo-Guyanese population, while the People’s National Congress (PNC) does the same with those of Afro-Guyanese descent. According to the 2012 census, Indo and Afro-Guyanese ethnic groups represent 39.8 percent and 29.3 percent of the population, respectively.
The PNC and PPP have dominated politics since Guyana’s independence from British colonial rule in the 1960s. However, it was only until 1992 that elections turned competitive. During the PNC governments of Forbes Burnham (1964-1985) and Desmond Hoyte (1985-1992), Guyana held elections, but they did not translate into an actual contestation of power.
The PPP won five consecutive elections following democratization (1992, 1997, 2001, 2006, and 2011), mostly due to loyalty stemming from the simple majority status of the Indo-Guyanese population. In this regard, Guyana’s party system seemed frozen along ethnic lines.
Yet, in 2015, David Granger, a retired military officer who ran on the platform of the PNC, defeated incumbent Donald Ramotar (2011-2015). Brigadier Granger, as he is also known, built a successful coalition—A Partnership for National Unity (APNU)—between the PNC and Alliance for Change (AFC). The AFC is a small party that broke into the national scene in 2006, and receives the support from voters of different ethnic backgrounds. The APNU coalition, won by a razor-thin margin of 5,000 votes that gave Granger and his allies a one-seat majority in the country’s unicameral National Assembly. The election marked a sudden end to two decades of PPP rule.
At the time, the media praised the 2015 election as a break from politics as usual. Nevertheless, a series of oil findings would soon rock the political establishment by reigniting ethnic tensions. Barely a couple of months after the election, in May 2015, ExxonMobil announced a significant offshore oil discovery. To date, 16 more have followed.
The magnitude of these findings cannot be understated. Guyana, a country in which approximately one-quarter of its 800,000 population lives in poverty, now has close to eight billion barrels of proven oil reserves—which even surpasses Mexico’s 7.9 billion. The oil boom promises to transform Guyana’s economy completely. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the country’s real GDP will grow by an extraordinary 85.6 percent in 2020 alone.
As elsewhere, the oil frenzy has taken a toll on the country’s politics. The main problem is the profound distrust between the incumbent PNC and rival PPP. Instead of viewing the oil revenues as a source of wealth for the nation, the country’s traditional parties have turned its income into a zero-sum game. Both believe that the other will use the vast amount of resources to remain in power—effectively preventing the other from accessing those funds.
The oil discoveries intensified the rivalry between the PNC and PPP, as both seek to rule during this new juncture. In 2018, Granger unexpectedly lost a no-confidence vote submitted by the PPP. The government, which was hanging by a thread, fell short of survival when a single legislator, MP Charrandass Persaud, from the AFC, sided with the opposition.
Now, a crisis has erupted in the wake of the presidential election. Although the 1980 constitution outlines a three-month timeline for elections following the government’s loss of a no-confidence vote, Granger opted to challenge the motion. After receiving death threats for his vote, Persaud self-exiled in Canada, a country from which he holds double-nationality. Instead of guaranteeing elections, Granger’s government used Persaud’s double-nationality as an issue to dispute the legality of the no-confidence vote. The matter escalated to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). In July 2019, the CCJ ruled in favor of new elections.
The CCJ’s ruling represented a triumph for the PPP. The government, however, dragged its feet to comply with the decision. As a result, the opposition staged a series of protests demanding fresh elections. Following months of stalemate, authorities scheduled a new election for March 2, 2020.
The election, held amid growing pressure, proved problematic. Preliminary returns gave the PPP a nationwide victory of 50,000 votes. Yet, a series of irregularities in Region four (Demerara-Mahaica)—including a shady delay in the vote tabulation process—resulted in crossed accusations of vote fraud. Demerara-Mahaica is a crucial region, since it includes Georgetown, the capital, and is home to the country’s largest population. In 2015, Region four overwhelmingly voted for Granger’s PNC. By the time the controversial vote count gave the government a majority, both the PNC and PPP had declared victory—adding further confusion to the election.
While the country’s High Court ordered a partial recount of votes in Region four—which will likely result in a PPP victory—broader concerns remain. The political repercussions originating from Guyana’s oil discoveries provide a grim picture of the future. While oil exports give the country a unique opportunity to leave behind its developing nation status, internal strains are working to undermine democracy and economic growth.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello