The prolonged electoral crisis in Guyana has the potential to leave the country in isolation. Members and supporters of Guyana’s incumbent party, A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) coalition, have continuously undermined the country’s democratic principles for more than four and a half months now. Their actions have subverted the will of the Guyanese electorate, putting the country at risk of sanctions from Western allies and suspensions from key international and regional organizations, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
The actions and defiant utterances by members and supporters of the coalition have tested the patience of Western powers and regional institutions to the extent that on July 15, the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced the imposition of visa restrictions on ”individuals who have been responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Guyana.”
Guyana’s prolonged electoral crisis
The sanctions are a result of the latest in a long line of filed injunctions by APNU+AFC supporters, as well as unlawful actions by the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM)’s Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield, to stop the declaration of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) as the winner of the March 2 elections.
Following the national recount—agreed to by both President David Granger and opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo—Lowenfield tried to, on various occasions, submit election reports that do not represent the locally and internationally recognized national recount figures approved by CARICOM election observers. Thus far, Lowenfield reported three separate election tallies, all different and the latest reflecting the same numbers that led to the PPP/C and smaller political parties’ contestation of the original tally. Following these attempts, GECOM chairman Justice (rt’d) Claudette Singh barred Lowenfield from using any figure other than the recount tally approved by election observers. Not only are these figures widely accepted, but Guyana’s highest appeal court, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) indicated on July 8th that Lowenfield must comply with Singh’s directions to produce a report using only said numbers.
However, as has regrettably become commonplace in Guyana, not only has Lowenfield not complied with these directions, but a supporter of the coalition filed an injunction with the country’s High Court, seeking to block a declaration of the results based on the recount. The injunction had little standing in the High Court given that the CCJ has already ruled that GECOM can proceed using recount figures to declare the PPP/C the elections winner. However, subsequent to this ruling, the APNU+AFC supporter filed an appeal with Guyana’s Court of Appeals. Thus, the coalition, through its supporters, continues to abuse the judiciary system, using injunctions and appeals to delay an official ruling— its last attempt to stay in power.
The events played out in Guyana have not gone unnoticed in the international community. Over the course of Guyana’s elections crisis, the United States and other Western powers, like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have called for an acceptance of the recount results and have threatened sanctions if the democratic will of Guyanese people is not respected. Thus far, the U.S. announcement of visa restrictions has kickstarted the process, and the United Kingdom and Canada are expected to follow suit. There is no shortage of statements from countries as well as respected international persons and organizations calling for the incumbent to concede.
These messages were notably reverberated at the recent Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council meeting on July 21, called by Secretary General Luis Almagro. Like other foreign actors, the OAS has condemned Lowenfield’s actions, and implied, through its citation of Article 1 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, that the incumbent has not fulfilled its obligation to promote and defend democracy in the Americas. Not only could Guyana face suspension from the OAS following the incumbent’s actions, but it could face the same fate from the Commonwealth. Suspensions from these organizations would damage the international reputation of Guyana almost beyond repair.
As former Prime Minister Bruce Golding has recently said, if the electoral crisis ended immediately, it will take institutional change and more than a generation to rebuild Guyana’s image within the international community.
Beyond these organizations, members and supporters of the coalition should be most worried about the recent comments from CARICOM Chair and Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves. As the most senior CARICOM leader, whose words carry heavily and widely in the Caribbean, Gonsalves argued that the Community will not be indifferent or detached from Guyana’s situation. CARICOM remains, to borrow President Granger’s phrase, “the most legitimate interlocutor” in Guyana, as well as its most invested.
Prime Minister Gonsalves’ statement, which echoes those of current and former Caribbean leaders, has been called out as foreign interference by the APNU+AFC. However, while the coalition demands respect for Guyanese sovereignty, the government is party to international, regional, and bilateral agreements, many built around ideas of democracy and intended to hold Guyanese leaders responsible if democratic principles are not respected. Sovereignty now is a convenient fig leaf for democratic malpractice.
To stave off further actions from foreign powers, the immediate solution is for the David Granger government to concede defeat. This is unlikely, as coalition members and supporters will likely unify and dig their heels even more, as more foreign pressure is applied.
For these reasons, the international community should continue supporting local actors, specifically the will of the Guyanese people who have, in the face of electoral turmoil, remained peaceful and committed to democracy. Nonetheless, these same people could face the repercussions of the incumbent’s actions as it exhausts the patience of Guyana’s allies. It is time for common sense and common decency to prevail, and time for the incumbent and his coalition to put the nation above self and party.
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.