Long poll lines in Guyana vote challenging racial politics

AP News
Posted: May 11, 2015 5:29 PM
Long poll lines in Guyana vote challenging racial politics

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — A party in power for over two decades in Guyana faced off in general elections Monday against a new coalition of opposition parties that seeks to challenge a tradition of racial politics and accuses the government of President Donald Ramotar of mismanagement and corruption.

There were long lines at polling stations, and at least one violent incident that prompted the government to mobilize troops to support the police, as Ramotar's People's Progressive Party sought a sixth consecutive term leading the sparsely populated country on South America's northern shoulder.

Ramotar said after casting his ballot that his party would keep its majority. "I am very confident of victory," he said. "Very."

But his party, which has held power since 1992, was in a tough fight from an opposition coalition led by David Granger, a 69-year-old retired army general. The coalition has offered itself as an alternative to the racially based politics that have dominated a country divided between people of Indian and African descent.

Granger predicted his coalition would win with 58 percent of the vote. "We really want to establish a government of national unity that will make people feel that it is inclusive," he told reporters after casting his ballot in the capital of Georgetown.

Ramotar has also touted his People's Progressive Party as inclusive but it has long been primarily supported by people of Indian descent.

There are few ideological differences between the two factions. The opposition's main argument is that it would do a better job of fighting corruption fueled by the drug trade and would modernize the ailing rice industry. It has attracted Guyanese of different ethnic backgrounds amid disenchantment with the dismal economic prospects and a perception of widespread corruption.

"I want accountability and transparency," said 30-year-old Aubrey Shepherd, a nurse who said he was supporting the opposition.

Police and election officials reported no major problems aside from delays in a few places. The most serious violence occurred when supporters of the opposition beat a group of men suspected of trying to steal ballot boxes. Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud said there had been no arrests but he asked for assistance from the army to provide security because of "expressions of intimidation" among voters from the rival factions.

Phillipa Brewster, using a walker to support herself as she voted a day before her 93rd birthday, said she would also support the opposition.

"This situation in this country is not like in my day. I don't like it so I am going to vote for change," Brewster said.

But voters like Roy Samlall, a surgeon, said the ruling party deserves credit for infrastructure projects and its plans to develop a deep-water harbor and hydroelectric power. "I don't think the opposition has anything better to offer."

Voter Ryan Phagoo, a minibus conductor, said that some in his family are supporting the opposition but he is sticking with the ruling party. "Police officers and teachers will get more money," the 29-year-old said.

The ruling party, the opposition coalition and a handful of small parties are vying for 65 Parliament seats. More than 570,000 people are eligible to vote.

There was no obvious front-runner in the race, with no independent opinion polls.

In the last election cycle in 2011, Ramotar and his party defeated Granger and another coalition he led. This time around, Granger is leading a coalition made up of the Partnership for National Unity and the Alliance for Change parties, which together had a single-seat majority in the last Parliament.

The elections were being held more than a year earlier than scheduled because Ramotar had suspended and later dissolved Parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote. Elections have to be held within three months following the dissolution of the legislature.

At times, the campaign season has been tense. Amnesty International said the March 10 killing of a political activist as he was campaigning for the opposition fueled "fear" ahead of the vote.

Official results were not expected until Wednesday.