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March 25th, 2016

Curbing electoral violence in Guyana

In 1996 and 2001, Guyana had suffered rioting and violence during its election campaigns. There were deep divisions between the country’s Indo- and Afro-Guyanese communities, which were reflected in the makeup of the political parties. The Guyanese Electoral Commission was tasked with ensuring legitimate, peaceful elections in the 2006 campaign. It drew on assistance from international NGOs, civil society groups, the legislature and the media to promote cohesion and change attitudes and behaviour.

The initiative

The organisation ultimately responsible for the conduct of the elections was the Guyana Elections Commission (“the Commission”). Its overarching goal was to ensure legitimate and peaceful elections, with its focus primarily on the forthcoming 2006 elections. In order to meet this goal, the Commission needed to:

  • Bridge the ethnic and racial gaps in the society as they related to the election.
  • Improve political cooperation, especially between the PPP and PNC.
  • Ensure that the media reported the electoral campaign and results responsibly.
  • Ensure that electoral legislation was strengthened.
  • Ensure that voter registration was demonstrably legitimate.
  • Enhance security and citizen safety at the polls.
  • Ensure that voting was free and fair.

The challenge

By the turn of the millennium, Guyana - formerly British Guiana - had enjoyed thirty-five years of independence. However, there were continuing “violent tensions between Guyana's two main ethnic groups, the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese”. [1] These tensions were reflected in the two main political parties, the primarily Indo-Guyanese People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the primarily Afro-Guyanese People's National Congress (PNC). “The largest ethnic group according to the 2002 census was the Indo-Guyanese, comprising 43.5 percent of the population”; the Afro-Guyanese comprised 30.2 percent. [2]

These deep ethnic and political divisions discouraged international investors and threatened the country's socioeconomic future. In 2002, Guyana remained one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. The flashpoint for these divisions, in which they were expressed through violence, was the Guyanese general election. In 2001, “there were serious incidents of violence and rioting in Georgetown, the capital city, following the announcement of results”. [3] The fear was that these riots would be repeated at the 2006 elections.

The public impact

The 2006 election was the most peaceful poll Guyana had experienced in more than a decade. Although the PPP won for the fourth time in succession, the opposition PNC did not reject the result and PNC supporters did not react violently. “Because of careful preparations, the Commission was able to release results within three days of the voting, sharply reducing the opportunity for rumours and frustration to take hold.” [4]

The Commonwealth observers reported no incitement to violence or hatred at meetings they had attended. The Carter Center, an international organisation which monitors elections worldwide, described the election as an “historic event”.

Stakeholder engagement

There were a number of institutions that assisted the Commission in preparing for the 2006 elections:

  • The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other international donors. The donors agreed to cover over half of the election's US$7 million budget.
  • “The Ethnic Relations Commission [(ERC)] and the UNDP set up a joint effort called the Social Cohesion Programme [(SCP)] to work to bridge the divide between the Indo- and Afro-Guyanese communities.” [5]
  • The Carter Center, which observed the elections together with other international NGO, such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), a Stockholm-based NGO that promotes democracy worldwide
  • The Commission worked with international donor agencies, such as the UNDP, to establish the Media Monitoring Unit (MMU). Its purpose was to seek out inaccurate, biased, or inflammatory statements in print and broadcast media.
  • The Social Partners Group (SPG), which consisted of the Private Sector Commission, the Trade Union Congress, and the Guyana Bar Association, represented key stakeholders in Guyanese society and drew members from across the ethnic divide.
  • Local civil society organisations ran various peacekeeping initiatives encouraging tolerance and calm.

Political commitment

Parliament supported the initiative and introduced laws designed to quell ethnic and racial violence. Parliament amended the main electoral law making it a criminal offence for any person to make or publish any statement, or take any action that could result in racial or ethnic violence, or hatred among people.

Public confidence

Guyana had a long history of election violence with unrest and bloodshed. Furthermore, some of the electorate, particularly the Afro-Guyanese thought the reforms were too slow, exacerbating tensions.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives was to avoid violence in the lead up to the 2006 elections in Guyana, largely caused by conflicts between ethnic groups and corrupt processes.

There were four many areas in which the initiative focused:

  • Overhauling voter registration
  • Improving communication with staff
  • Adding new polling stations and in overstretched regions
  • Monitoring partisan disinformation

Strength of evidence

The Commission hired the International IDEA to undertake a comprehensive systems review and audit of the 2001 election, to understand the necessary actions for the 2006 election.

Election commissioners met with prominent members of the media to review examples of irresponsible reporting from the 2001 elections and the subsequent violence and to encourage a more responsible approach to the 2006 elections. “To draft a new voluntary media code, the Commission and the UNDP organised a two-day conference attended by leading media representatives. Participants debated the wording of provisions extensively. To help write the code and set up the monitoring unit, donor organisations hired Tim Neale, a consultant who had more than 30 years' experience with the BBC.” [6]


The financial feasibility was assured by the funding from international donors and the Guyanese government. The legal feasibility drew strength from the amendments to electoral law, which discouraged factional incitement to violence. The control of the media was made feasible through drafting the voluntary code of conduct and setting up the MMU.

The technical feasibility of voter registration and the principle of ‘one person, one vote' were addressed by appropriate means. “After voters registered at one of the field offices [set up across the country by the Commission], officials visited their homes to verify and collect biometric information and copy source documents, such as birth certificates.”

“Although the reforms were significant, some, particularly the Afro-Guyanese, felt the process was too slow, stalling the effort and allowing tensions to fester.” [7]


Steve Surujablly became chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission in September 2001, a new institution that began in 2000. He hired the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance to review the previous violent election and make suggestions for reforms. In the lead up to the 2006 elections, the commission was assisted by domestic and international partners in helping to manage a smooth, violent free election.


There were systems in place to monitor:

  • The media's adherence to the code, which was measured by the MMU. It flagged reports that violated the code of conduct on television, radio or in newspapers, and it examined the volume of election coverage.
  • The conduct of the elections, through six international bodies, including the Carter Center, which were able to monitor and report on the 2006.
  • The disseminating of the election results, which needed to be rapid, disinterested and reliable.


The actors worked extensively towards peaceful, legitimate elections in 2006, for example:

  • The Commission worked with international donor agencies to establish the MMU, which sought out inaccurate, biased or inflammatory statements in the media.
  • The UNDP and the ERC cooperated to set up the SCP.
  • “In July 2003, the SCP sponsored the General Secretaries of the PPP and PNC to attend a training workshop on conflict analysis.” [8]
  • The Electoral Assistance Bureau (EAB), a local organisation, recruited prominent Guyanese personalities to convey messages of peace over radio and television.
  • “Aware of the high stakes, six international observation teams with 150 individual observers came to monitor the elections.” [9]
  • Local monitors, mostly drawn from the EAB and members of Guyana's Chamber of Commerce, observed campaign rallies and collected detailed information on cases of electoral violence.

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