Voters in Guyana will head to the polls on Monday in a crucial election that will decide which party oversees an oil boom that is expected to transform the poor South American country’s economy.
More than eight billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas have been discovered off the country’s shores. Under a 40-year deal signed with ExxonMobil Corp and its partners in 2016, Guyana is expected to receive an estimated $168bn in revenue, more than 120 times the country’s annual budget.
Monday’s election comes at a pivotal moment as the first wave of oil production gets under way.
“These elections are not only critical, they are also consequential,” said Christopher Ram, a local newspaper columnist based in Guyana’s capital Georgetown.
“Each of the major parties is determined to keep the other away from control of [the] wealth,” that is expected to come via the oil discoveries, he told Al Jazeera.
Guyana, a former British colony, gained its independence in 1966. But since then it has been plagued by ethnic tensions between its descendants of enslaved people from Africa and Indian indentured servants brought to work on sugarcane and rice plantations centuries ago.
The ethnic tensions have also carried over into politics. The political system in Guyana is often referred to in local media as a “duopoly”. The two dominant parties, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), have respective strongholds within the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese populations.
In 2015, President David Granger and his APNU-AFC coalition which considers itself multiracial but is comprised mainly of Afro-Guyanese parties including the PNC, unseated the PPP after 23 years in power.
Gold has long been Guyana’s main export, but the country has seen low levels of growth. With less than 800,000 people, Guyana’s GDP growth in 2019 was just 4.4 percent. Experts say a lack of infrastructure, transparency and human capital, have stood in the way of development.
The country’s GDP is set to balloon by 86 percent this year, according to the IMF. The PPP, led by Irfaan Ali, and APNU-AFC want control over the management of the country’s new energy resources.
Although, a recent report by Global Witness, an international NGO, claimed that Guyana would lose up to $55bn in an “exploitative oil deal” with Exxon Mobil, neither the PPP nor the APNU-AFC has said they would renegotiate the agreement with the US oil giant.
Remi Piet, senior director at Americas Market Intelligence (AMI), said a contract renegotiation with Guyana would send a bad signal to foreign investors.
“There were not a lot of companies that were ready to actually make the research and exploration and take the risk in Guyana until very recently,” Piet said, due to Guyana’s underdevelopment, as well as its border dispute with Venezuela, which has claimed nearly two-thirds of the country.
Endemic corruption is one of the key issues that needs to be resolved if the country wants its people to benefit from the resources, analysts say. The executive branch within Guyana is known to wield power across most levels of government.
“While Guyana is often described as having strong features of the Westminster system, in practice, it is a presidential, authoritarian system in which power resides in the head of the party in government,” Ram said.
He added that the Guyanese constitution gives the sitting president the power to appoint all the key positions of the state apparatus, including the military, the judiciary, the police, permanent secretaries, diplomats and the head of the elections commission. The president also decides who from the party should sit in the National Assembly.
Guyana ranks 85 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the same rank as Burkina Faso and Indonesia.
“The priority for Guyana is to improve the transparency of its institutions and continue fighting against corruption and embezzlement,” Piet noted, adding that large investments from regulated, international oil companies could be a way to reach that goal.
Meanwhile, Lenox Shuman, the Indigenous and mixed-race leader of Liberty and Justice, a third party in the election, hopes his movement will become a minority force in Guyana’s government, advocating on behalf of all of the country’s people not just its Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese majorities.
Guyana’s Indigenous population, commonly referred to as “Amerindians”, have a history that traces its roots to the Arawak or “Jaguar People” of South America and the Caribbean. Amerindians make up 10 percent of the country’s population.
“There is no government that makes a majority in this country without indigenous people,” Shuman told Al Jazeera by phone.
“We have never been looked at as leaders of this country. We have just been looked at as subjects of this country,” Shuman said.
Shuman, an airline pilot turned politician, grew up in an Amerindian village along Guyana’s Mahaica River. To him, promoting equity in Guyana and making sure the bounties go back to the people, is crucial.
Many Amerindians in Guyana continue to live below the poverty line and wait on land titles promised by previous administrations.
Lenox Shuman believes that if his party is able to achieve a minority government, the country’s leaders might handle the new wealth transparently and effectively, opening up a path for Guyana to become a real force in the region.
Shuman would like to see Guyana welcome even more immigrants from countries nearby like Venezuela, Brazil, and Haiti.
“We could become the most effective stabilising force in South and Central America and in the Caribbean,” Shuman said. “We could become the leaders.”