Last Monday’s disputed general election has set off protests across Guyana as opposition supporters forced road closures, shuttered businesses and clashed with police. Reuters reported that a teenager had been shot by police, and that law enforcement officials had surrounded the offices of the country’s elections commission, GECOM. The ballot marked the small South American country’s most high-stakes election in decades, with voters deciding who should lead them into a new and more prosperous era. This follows ExxonMobil’s discovery of more than eight billion barrels’ worth of oil off the Guyanese coast.
Both incumbent President David Granger and opposition candidate, Irfaan Ali have declared victory, emboldening their supporters and inflaming racial divisions. Guyana is “an ethnically riven society,” Finance Minister Winston Jordan told the New York Times, and such splits have long defined the country’s politics. Mr. Granger’s PNC government is primarily supported by urban-based Afro-Guyanese people, while Mr. Ali and the PPP opposition largely draw on the votes of ethnic Indians in rural areas. On Friday, diplomats from the U.S., Britain, Canada and the EU pushed back against premature victory proclamations, authoring a joint statement which flagged “credible allegations of electoral fraud.” That warning came too late to prevent election officials at GECOM from releasing results which showed Mr. Granger’s government in the lead, a decision they made in defiance of a Supreme Court injunction.
For a country that has a population of just 800,000 citizens, and is the least developed on the continent, the question of who gets to manage Guyana’s newfound oil wealth will prove hugely consequential. On the back of oil production commencing last December, the IMF projects that Guyana’s GDP will grow by almost 86% in 2020; by the end of the decade, oil exports could be worth US$30 billion per year. Those revenues will fund a massively expanded federal budget, which could be used by the winning party to consolidate their power and lock out their political rivals. The election was fought over how best to spend these resources, and the divergent priorities of the major parties reflect the interests of their voter bases. The PPP wants to fund the reopening of sugar refineries and restore jobs to rural labourers in other traditional industries, such as rice farming and gold and bauxite mining. The PNC, meanwhile, has called for workers to be retrained for health and education jobs, in an upsized public service.
Whoever wins power will know that a sudden abundance of oil is not necessarily a blessing, given the cautionary tale provided by neighbouring Venezuela. While the resources boom will certainly be lucrative, a dependence on oil production could leave the economy at the mercy of fluctuations in petroleum prices. Such reliance could also displace traditional sectors of the country’s economy, which many Guyanese rely on for employment. Moreover, Guyana’s outdated environmental protection laws fail to even mention oil extraction, and the contract signed with ExxonMobil has repeatedly been criticised by Mr. Granger’s opponents as a bad deal for the country.
Only once the political impasse is resolved, however, can these challenges be addressed. GECOM must respect judicial institutions and heed the warnings of international observers against a hasty and partisan ending to this election. A comprehensive recount supported by both major parties is a necessity if the unrest is to stop. Mr. Jordan, the Finance Minister, noted that “it’s a rare incidence” to have “money bringing people together,” and his newly-enriched nation is no exception. The first step in this new era has been marked by bitter political conflict, tinged by ethnic division. Time will tell whether striking oil is a blessing for Guyana – or a curse.
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