Four months after the most important election in Guyana’s history, there is still no officially recognised winner. The paralysis is hitting the country’s fledgling oil industry and there are worries the tiny South American country might slide into a racially charged civil war.
The US has urged David Granger, the long-serving president, to “respect the results of democratic elections and step aside” to allow the opposition People’s Progressive party (PPP), and its candidate Irfaan Ali, to take over.
Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines and chairman of regional Caribbean bloc Caricom, said last week a “rogue clique” in Guyana was “playing with fire, commotion, disorder and civil war”.
“A small group of persons in and out of Guyana are seeking to hijack, in plain sight, the elections, and thus the country,” he warned in remarks he emphasised were his personal views rather than those of the bloc.
Mr Granger initially appeared to have won the March 2 election but the PPP alleged fraud and both sides agreed to a recount. The new results suggested Mr Granger had lost. The government says the recount was flawed and is refusing to accept it. It has repeatedly gone to court to delay the official declaration of results.
“The recount process which was conducted, painstakingly, for thirty-three days revealed massive irregularities and extensive fraud which cannot be foisted on the Guyanese people to contrive an outcome that betrays the will of the electorate,” the ruling coalition said in a statement.
The US has imposed visa restrictions on those it blames for “undermining democracy”. The Organisation of American States (OAS) says the opposition clearly won. The head of the OAS mission to Guyana, Bruce Golding, Jamaica’s former prime minister, said in May that he had “never seen such a transparent effort to alter the results of an election”.
Opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo told the Financial Times that war was unlikely but if the Granger government “refuses to leave office, people are not going to take it lightly”. He said some in the country were “working aggressively to divide our people, particularly along racial lines”.
Last week Mr Granger’s campaign manager, Joseph Harmon, claimed that “dark forces are threatening to pull us apart”.
In an apparent reference to next-door Venezuela, he said the disputed elections “seem no longer to be about the Guyanese people but about other interests”. The Granger government believes the US is trying to use Guyana in its bid to topple Nicolás Maduro as Venezuela’s president.
The stalemate could hardly have come at a worse time for the oil industry.
Just eight months ago, a consortium led by ExxonMobil produced its first Guyanese offshore oil from one of 16 deepwater deposits. The company estimates there are 8bn barrels of recoverable reserves in Guyanese waters. Until recently it predicted the country could produce 750,000 barrels a day by 2025, which would make it the fourth biggest producer in Latin America.
But the political crisis, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic that has hammered global demand for oil, has hit Exxon’s plans to develop its Payara offshore project.
Oil revenues Guyana stands to make by 2028 if offshore reserves are properly exploited
In an earnings call, Darren Woods, chief executive, said “uncertainty around the next administration has slowed government approvals”. As a result, the consortium had pushed back its Guyanese production goal by “roughly six to 12 months”.
Energy consultancy Rystad says Guyana, one of the world’s poorest countries, could generate $4.4bn in oil revenues by 2028 but, if Payara is delayed, that timeline would slip “quite substantially”.
The delays were “mainly to do with politics” and “could have a ripple effect” on other projects, potentially denting foreign investment in Guyana, said Palzor Shenga, Rystad’s senior upstream research analyst.
That would be disastrous for Guyana, a sliver of jungle wedged between Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname on the north-east coast of South America.
Roughly the size of mainland Britain but with a population of fewer than 800,000, it has depended on sugar, bauxite and rice since independence in 1966, and has been banking on an oil boom. The IMF initially forecast gross domestic product would jump 86 per cent this year as the first oil money flowed in. Even with coronavirus and the slump in oil prices, it predicts 53 per cent growth.
Complicating matters is Venezuela, which has a longstanding claim to a swath of Guyana and its oil-rich waters. The dispute, which dates from 1899, is at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The Granger government says that in March, just after the election, US public broadcaster Voice of America (VoA) asked permission to broadcast into Venezuela on medium-wave frequencies from Guyana. Mr Granger refused, he revealed last week, saying “it would not be in our national interest to do anything to contribute to destabilising relations”. VoA has not commented.
The election has exposed Guyana’s long-simmering racial tensions. Mr Granger has relied on support from the Afro-Guyanese community that makes up 30 per cent of the population while Mr Jagdeo’s PPP is backed by Guyanese of Indian descent. They make up about 40 per cent of the population.
“There is potential for unrest but the political parties on both sides are doing their best to keep it under wraps,” said Dennis Chabrol, a radio journalist in the capital Georgetown.
However, neither side is backing down. Mr Jagdeo said he hoped for an official results declaration within weeks and that if Mr Granger did not accept defeat it would amount to a coup.
“We will not bend,” Mr Harmon, the president’s campaign manager, said.