9 March 2020

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Highlights

  • After many months of political dispute between the two major parties of Guyana, the country went into elections on 2 March 2020, but instead of generating a stable government, this only added more confusion to the situation
  • It is clear that Guyana will enter into a situation of political tension and that whoever will emerge from the decision of the judiciary, will be inevitably considered lacking in full democratic legitimacy: the perspective of an orderly process of exploitation of the recently discovered oil resources to benefit the entire Guyanese population seem, at the moment, quite remote

After many months of political dispute between the two major parties of Guyana, a country where the recent discovery of oil by ExxonMobil in the Stabroek Block, offshore of the Guyanese Atlantic Coast, which will let Guyana enter into the exclusive club of oil producers (the IMF estimates a 85.6% growth in 20202 due to oil), the country went into elections on 2 March 2020, but instead of generating a stable government, this only added more confusion to the situation in Guyana as there has been accusations of rigging the elections in favor of the incumbent APNU-AFC and a more acute institutional crisis. In fact, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) opposition party alleges that the results in Guayana Region 4 were rigged in favor of the APNU-AFC coalition as the full count of Region 4 was not yet completed when the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) declared that the APNU-AFC won in the Region, a territory whose votes would determine the general elections. Soon after the envoys of the United States, UK, Canada and the European Union questioned the legitimacy of the vote, while the opposition PPP obtained an injunction preventing GECOM from making a declaration of the total count for Region 4, which the GECOM disregarded, moving ahead in declaring the victory of the incumbent APNU-AFC before the entire matter could be brought before the Guyanese Highest Court, who, on 9 March 2020, issued a prima facie ruling confirming that the court has jurisdiction to hear the matter and that “a court cannot shirk its duty in this regard.”

The Constitutional Crisis Background

On 21 December 2018, President Granger’s government fell after a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly, triggering a general election campaign nearly two years before President Granger’s constitutional term would be complete. President Granger of the People's National Congress (PND), was elected in May 2015 under a joint electoral list formed by A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC). The 2015 elections resulted in a major change in Guyanese politics since, after many years, the PPP, mostly formed by people of Indian origin and founded in 1950 and by Cheddi Jagan (also of Indian origin), lost the elections. President Granger’s PND was founded in 1957 as a spin-off of the PPP, having more socialist positions and mostly composed of people of African origin. Over the years there have been violent ethnic confrontations between the two ethnic groups, those of Indian and African origin. President Granger’s government lost the no-confidence vote after the switch in allegiance of a single member of parliament, Charrandass Persaud, belonging to the junior party in the coalition.

On the basis of Guyana’s constitution, once a vote of no confidence is passed, the government in charge must resign and call elections within three months, which in this case would have been by 19 March 2019. However, the government can stay longer if there is a two-thirds’ majority agreement. President Granger’s government later questioned the legitimacy of such a vote of no-confidence and brought the matter to court. Meanwhile, PPP opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo immediately called for new elections.

Also, President Granger proceeded to appoint Patterson as chairman of GECOM. Soon thereafter, PPP Member of Parliament, MP Zulfikar Mustapha, had raised legal arguments against the validity of the unilateral appointment of GECOM’s chairman. In fact, after his appointment, the GECOM chairman informed the government that it was not possible to proceed to elections with the current list of voters as it may hold as many as 200,000 incorrect entries and that elections could be held in November 2019, after the completion of house-to-house registration. The PPP opposition party accused President Granger of delaying the provision of funds to GECOM in order to ultimately postpone the time of the elections and, our of this came the complaint against the appointment of Patterson.

Subsequently, in a landmark decision, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), on 18 June 2019, declared the 21 December 2018 No-Confidence Motion to be valid and that the appointment of retired Justice James Patterson as chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) is illegal. In delivering the judgment, CCJ President, Justice Adrian Saunders urged the parties involved in the matter to engage with each other and to come up with a consensus that the final Appellate Court can make consequential orders on the way forward.

PPP opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo, on 20 June 2019, called Patterson’s continued occupation of the post of GECOM chairman “untenable,” while saying that he could have a new list of nominees for President David Granger’s consideration.

President Granger, after the 18 June 2019 decision, continued to postpone the Guyana general elections, but they were finally set for 2 March 2020.

The Broader Scenario

The recent discovery of oil by ExxonMobil in the Stabroek Block, offshore of the Guyanese Atlantic Coast, which will let Guyana enter into the exclusive club of oil producers, threw on President Granger’s shoulders the burden of establishing a complex regulatory and environmental framework for managing the new oil bonanza.

Moreover, on 22 December 2018 (just a day after the fall President Granger’s government), the Venezuelan army intercepted two ships exploring for oil on behalf of ExxonMobil in Guyanese waters, claiming that they were within Venezuelan territory. This re-opened a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela, in the relation to the Essequibo region, which started at the end of the 19th century, and which has never been really settled.  It has recently re-acquired increased importance given that the Stabroek Block lies offshore of the Essequibo region. The dispute with Venezuela, obviously linked to oil discovery in the disputed Essequibo, as well as the highly unstable situation of neighboring Venezuela, contributed to create tensions within President Granger’s government and ultimately to derail it.

Risk Analysis

While it is not possible to anticipate the decisions of the Guyanese courts, based on the information currently available, it is likely that the Region 4 vote will not be adjudicated in favor of APNU-AFC. What this will imply in terms of the general elections is again something that cannot be anticipated in this phase, although is clear that Guyana will enter into a situation of political tension and institutional weakness and that the new government, whoever will emerge from the decision of the judiciary, will be inevitably considered lacking in full democratic legitimacy: the perspective of an orderly process of exploitation of the recently discovered oil resources to benefit the entire Guyanese population, avoiding tensions and economic distortions like the Dutch disease, seem, at the moment, quite remote.

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