Suriname and Guyana: Political leaders and their undemocratic

Hans Ramsoedh

Elections have recently been held in both Suriname and neighbouring Guyana. In both countries, however, the sitting presidents refuse to accept their electoral defeat. In the last elections on 25 May in Suriname, Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) suffered a major defeat (from 26 to 16 seats). He wants a recount of the votes in Paramaribo. David Granger has been president of Guyana since 2015. In the elections on 2 March, the incumbent government declared that, even before the official election results were known, they had won the election by one seat difference. Opposition and international observers spoke of a fraudulent election result. Under great international pressure, the Guyanese government decided to carry out an overall recount of the votes. The Guyanese Electoral Commission announced on Monday 8 June that the opposition had won the elections with 33 seats, while President Granger’s party had won 31 seats. Granger, however, did not accept the election results and spoke of fraud in the recount.

Meeting with President Bouterse and President Granger in Jamaica in July 2018

How did the process in Suriname go after the elections? The statement of the Surinamese people was unequivocal: exit Bouterse and the NDP. The population had more than enough of the disastrous socio-economic policies, endemic corruption, the sale of natural resources, the skyrocketing national debt and the self-enrichment by a small group around the president. In a democratic system, it is customary for losers to accept the election results and congratulate the winners on their election victory. It means for the losing party that it takes a seat in the opposition benches and submits to a reflection on the cause of the election defeat. To date, however, the NDP leadership has still not officially resigned from the election results. Before the election, Bouterse declared: ‘The people are in charge and we must bow our heads to it’. A day after the election, he had long forgotten his statement, because when it became clear to him that his NDP was the big loser, Bouterse demanded an overall recount across the country in the presence of cameras. A few days later, instead of an overall recount, a recount of the votes in Paramaribo was demanded. According to the NDP, there could have been irregularities on the day of the vote. However, no concrete incidents were reported by this party regarding possible irregularities. Recount is also not a meaningful exercise since all polling stations were supervised by NDP officials. The organisation of the elections was quite chaotic, but according to the president of the Independent Electoral Office (OKB), Jennifer van Dijk-Silos, there was no question of fraud. She stated that in her 20-year career at the OKB she had never seen so much chaos and that the Home Office showed ‘incompetence’ and ‘a huge breach of the organisation of elections’. The organisation of the elections was purple: wrong ballots delivered to the polling stations, voters who had already voted at some polling stations were called upon to cast their ballots again, and there were quite a few reports from a number of polling stations in Paramaribo. In particular, the official handling of the votes in Paramaribo caused a great deal of commotion. In the face of opposition, the NDP government attempted to intervene in the democratic process of counting. Observers from various political parties spent a week spending nights in the Anthony Nesty Sports Hall (ANS) where the administrative handling of the ballot papers of the Paramaribo constituency took place. This is to prevent fraud. All in all, it took ten days before the unofficial results of Paramaribo were announced. There was a suspicion that the government was using a delaying tactic in order to be able to defraud.
Despite the great loss, the NDP is still trying to stay in power in many ways. The opposition parties VHP, NPS ABOP and PL declared that a day after the elections they would form a new government with Chan Santokhi as presidential candidate. Although Brunswijk had stated before the elections that he was excluding cooperation with the NDP and had already committed to a coalition with VHP, NPS and PL, the NDP side nevertheless tried to persuade Ronnie Brunswijk of the ABOP to engage with the NDP. Volgens de mofokranti [mondeling verspreiden van nieuws of geruchten] zou de NDP aan Brunswijk zelfs het presidentschap hebben aangeboden. Apparently, the NDP is trying in all sorts of ways to stay on in the power center despite the outcome of the vox populi on May 25. The NDP’s delaying tactics can be seen as the last convulsions of a criminal regime.

Neighbouring Country Guyana has a long history of ethnic and political tensions. Elections in this country are always associated with ethnic violence. In this country, politics is dominated by the Indo-Guyanese (Hindostan) People’s Progressive Party(PPP) with charismatic leader Cheddi Jagan (1918- 1997) and Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress (PNC) in the 1960s, 1970s and the first half of the 1980s led by the dictatorial Forbes Burnham (1923-1985).
The PNC’s dominance of Guyanese politics between 1964 and 1992 effectively marked the establishment of a Creole dictatorship in which Hindostans had the position of second-class citizens. Not surprisingly, during Burnham’s reign, tens of thousands of Hindostans sought safe haven in countries such as the US and Canada. The PNC was able to stay in power thanks to large-scale electoral fraud. Under great international pressure and thanks to the presence of a team of 100 foreign observers in 1992, elections were held for the first time in more than three decades free of manipulation and fraud. They ended 28 years of political sole rule of the PNC and resulted in a victory for Jagan’s PPP. This party remained in power until 2015. That year, David Granger was elected president.

Granger was an officer and national security adviser to President Burnham. In 1979 he was appointed commander of the Guyanese army. He retired in 1992. In 2012, he was elected leader of the PNC. By working with a number of smaller parties (including a split from the PPP), the name PNC was changed to A Partnership for National Unity(APNU)/ Alliance forChange (AFC), but within this coalition the PNC is the dominant party. In 2012, Granger was the presidential candidate for APNU/AFC. The PPP candidate Donald Ramotar was elected president in 2012.
In 2015, the APNU/AFC coalition won the election with just one seat difference. After an APNU/AFC MP joined the opposition at the end of 2019, President Granger had no choice but to call new elections on 2 March 2020.

The APNU/AFC coalition claimed the election win on March 2. The PPP opposition rejected this claim and spoke of widespread fraud. International observers from the US, Canada, Britain, the European Union, Caricom and the OAS also questioned the credibility of the election results and demanded a recount in their presence. The US threatened to block foreign funds from Guyana and, as well as Canada and England, by not recognizing the legitimacy of a new government under President Granger. The Caricom even threatened to move its headquarters in Georgetown (the capital of Guyana) to another Caribbean country if Granger continued to reject a recount. As a result of the struggle between the government and the opposition over the outcome of the elections, ethnic tensions in the country increased. In riots between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese in march and April, some people were injured and one was killed.

From left to right: Bharrat Jagdeo (former President of Guyana and Secretary-General of the PPP), Presidential candidate Irfaan Ali and Prime ministerial candidate Mark Phillips

After more than a month of wrangling over the election result and under great international pressure, the Guyanese government finally agreed to a recount. President Granger and Bharrat Jagdeo (former President and Secretary-General of the PPP) agreed to accept the outcome of the recount, which would take place under international supervision. The recount of the 465,000 votes and 2,339 ballot boxes took more than 33 days. However, when the then incumbent President Granger became clear that the opposition PPP was ahead, he rejected the result of the recount, despite his earlier commitment, by talking of fraud in the vote. During the recount, it became clear that Granger’s party had been defrauded at the earlier count. The recent election in Guyana calls for reminiscences of the Burnham government, which was able to stay in power for more than three decades thanks to widespread fraud. In the unofficial result announced by the Guyanese Electoral Commission on Monday 8 June, the PPP won 33 seats and President Granger’s APNU/AFC 31. With this result, the 40-year-old Irfaan Ali (1980) becomes the new president of Guyana on behalf of the PPP. He was previously an MP and minister in the PPP government. With Granger’s rejection of the election result, new violent clashes between Indo and Afro-Guyanese in Guyana should not be ruled out.

Granger’s attitude is similar to Bouterse’s: both do not wish to accept the election result. Both Bouterse and Granger promote free and fair elections, but their actions prove otherwise. In Caribbean political circles, President Granger is described as a “sanctimonious gangster” [sanctimonious gangster – quote from John Beale, former ambassador of Barbados to the US and to the OAS, quoted in,6 June, 2020: ‘Opinion: Zero Tolerance for any violation of democracy in Guyana’]. Like David Granger, Desi Bouterse is a suit from the same sheet. The attitude of both represents an undermining of the democratic process in their country and shows their undemocratic institution.