Democracy Lab

Cooling Ethnic Conflict in Guyana's Elections

Guyana's 2001 presidential election left the country deeply divided along ethnic lines. In 2006, they decided to try something new.

When Steve Surujbally, a former advisor to the minister of agriculture, accepted a presidential appointment as chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission in September 2001, he had no experience in election administration. In accepting the appointment, Surujbally recognized how politically charged his new role would be. Guyana had a history of tense racially-aligned politics between the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese with roots in colonial policies, suspected Cold War alliances with the Soviet Union, and personal political rivalries. Campaign seasons were marred by violence, ranging from riots to assassinations. Political candidates competed fiercely for every vote in a country of just 760,000 and a parliament elected by proportional representation. 

Electoral conflict was concentrated between two parties: the primarily Indo-Guyanese supporters of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the primarily Afro-Guyanese supporters of the People's National Congress (PNC). The election commission included three representatives from each of these parties, an uneasy balance that slowed deliberations, which then spurred critics to attack the commission as biased or indecisive. Nevertheless, Guyana's elections commission worked with international donors, and civil society groups before the last election in 2006 and was able to defuse conflict, thwart violence, and deliver free and peaceful elections. 

This cooperative solution was rooted in public frustration with the violence surrounding the March 2001 regional elections, which were particularly contentious. When voters found their names missing from the registry on election day, the opposition PNC accused the incumbent PPP of dirty tricks. Moreover, the elections commission reported results four days after the election, exacerbating tensions. Television and radio hosts contributed to the frenzy by pushing rival narratives about the source of the delay. Although international observers ultimately declared the election free and fair, many citizens believed it was rigged. Incidents of violence quickly escalated into angry public protests and retaliation. The elections commission needed to restore trust between the Indo- and Afro-Guyanese communities, and trust in the electoral process, ahead of the fall 2006 elections. 

Surujbally and his six electoral commissioners knew they had to revamp the elections commission in order to rebuild credibility and avoid the mistakes of 2001. Their first priority was to improve the voter registration process. In 2001, the commission had registered voters only during the few months preceding the election, when tensions were already high and parties were quick to seize upon any perceived fault in the process. In this charged atmosphere, the registry became a political football. 

Assessing their options before the 2006 elections, the three PNC-nominated commissioners wanted a full door-to-door verification of the registry. Surujbally and the three PPP-nominated commissioners argued that this would not be cost effective, and lobbied for a continuous registration system grounded upon the existing registry. They contended that spreading registration across the electoral cycle would also make the process less open to political criticism. After many meetings, the PPP-nominated members overruled their PNC-nominated colleagues and called for the reuse of the 2001 registry -- an outcome that created significant tension within the commission. 

In order to do this, the commission had to go and create registration field offices. It placed one office in each of Guyana's 10 administrative regions, and established additional offices in more populous regions to avoid overcrowding. In total, the commission set up 23 permanent field offices and 160 temporary ones, to cope with increased registrations right before the election. 

Field offices assigned voters unique computer-generated identity numbers to safeguard privacy and reduce errors. Under the old registration process, there were mix-ups between voters who registered together with their relatives and received similar numbers. The commission resolved the problem by adding two randomly-generated "check digits" to the end of each identity number. After voters registered, elections officials visited their homes to take digital pictures of the voters, their source documents, and fingerprints. Two IT operators separately keyed in each form so that the system could flag data entry errors. 

Voter mistrust was only one hurdle facing the commission; another was an inflammatory media. The commission worked with international donor agencies to establish the Media Monitoring Unit to seek out  inaccurate, biased, or inflammatory statements in print and broadcast media. Commissioners met with prominent members of the media to review examples of irresponsible reporting from the 2001 elections and discuss the subsequent violence. Keen to clean up their reputations, leading media houses agreed to adhere to a new code of conduct. They committed to providing fair, balanced, and accurate information about the elections. The monitoring unit assessed the media's behavior before, during, and after the election and flagged reports that violated the new code. Also, the unit examined the volume of election coverage given to each party, negative or positive. 

When media sources violated the code of conduct -- for instance, if radio talk show hosts made derogatory remarks against an ethnic group -- the commission wrote them a letter reminding them of their commitment. Jainarine Deonauth, the unit's deputy manager, explained that the unit treaded lightly: "Some of [the media outlets] ... thought they were fighting a battle to represent their ethnic group, and any attempt to control them was looked at as stifling media freedom." To avoid politicizing the review process, the unit referred any infractions to an independent panel of two veteran journalists from other Caribbean nations. 

Hastening the release of election results was addressed by increasing manpower. In 2001, too few staffers had supervised key areas. For example, the region comprising the capital Georgetown that represented almost 50 percent of the electorate had only 20 deputies to collect election results. For the 2006 elections, the commission increased that number to 68. The commission also changed the process for transmitting results. In 2001, a central control room had compiled all the results and made final tabulations, creating bottlenecks. Officials jammed the phone lines to report their results, stalling the count. Before the centralized office could finish its tabulation, political parties would often declare their own results -- lending the impression that the commission was "deliberately stymieing or withholding information," according to Calvin Benn, the commission's deputy chief electoral officer. To avert this issue in 2006, the commission decentralized the process. Each region carried out vote tabulation and sent final tallies to the central control room, enabling secretariat staff to compute overall results more quickly. 

Communications improved by increasing phone capacity and backing up the system with a more robust radio network helped streamline the vote count. This enhanced technology helped the commission stay in touch with field offices throughout election day. Keith Lowenfield, assistant chief electoral officer for the commission, indicated that timely communications were essential to the smooth functioning of election day: "As [the day] unfolds, you must be in a position to know what is happening, or you will lose control." The network allowed managers to nip problems in the bud. For example, when the operations room learned that a presiding officer was violating rules on election day, officials removed him before he could do significant damage. 

While the elections commission worked to streamline electoral processes, other organizations addressed the human side of electoral strife. Starting in 2003, Guyana's Ethnic Relations Commission and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began a Social Cohesion Program, organizing conversations between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese community members. Lawrence Lachmansingh, a Guyanese development consultant for the UNDP, explained: "Our calculation was, if there was a political conflict in Guyana, it was an ethnic conflict largely driven from the center, a nationally-driven problem. The people at the local level did not spontaneously combust." Because the interactions between the communities were so charged, the UNDP took the lead. It recruited local residents of diverse ethnic backgrounds with experience in regional development or youth work to set up more than 3,000 "conversations" countrywide. Trevor Benn of the UNDP explained that "one of the challenges in Guyana was that people did not have an opportunity to vent, and so these forums gave them an opportunity to do that." 

In the immediate run-up to the 2006 election, the Social Cohesion Program shifted focus, facilitating conversations among the political parties. It brought together the parties' youth wings, particularly in areas prone to electoral violence. The UNDP also facilitated a three-day meeting of Guyana's senior politicians. Roelf Meyer, a prominent conflict expert from South Africa, led the sessions. "[The politicians] all sat across from each other for three days, and they talked about the mistrust that each had with the other... You don't usually get people to do that," said the UNDP's Benn. As election day neared, prominent civil society and religious groups joined in the movement for peace. For instance, the Electoral Assistance Bureau (EAB), a local organization, recruited prominent Guyanese personalities to convey messages of peace over radio and television. 

The elections commission did however encounter a number of difficulties in carrying out its mandate. Lingering resentment about the decision to forego a new voter registry undercut public trust in the registration process. The commission's information technology (IT) department, responsible for entering and storing voter registration data, had long battled allegations of data tampering. The elections commission struggled to find a qualified person to head the department. Surujbally recalled: "We had an Afro-Guyanese [person], and that person resigned in frustration and vexation because people were slandering him." His replacement, an Indo-Guyanese woman, also resigned for similar reasons. With financial assistance from UNDP, the commission brought in Gavin Campbell, a British citizen with relevant expertise, to head the IT department. By selecting a foreigner, the commission hoped to quell perceptions of political bias. Campbell, in turn, had difficulty finding people to help run the database: "One of the problems is finding people to do this fairly specialized database-type work, because that's not the kind of work that exists in the private sector in Guyana," he said. 

Although the commission managed to address suspicions about the IT department, many opposition supporters still doubted the accuracy of the registry. When the commission released the final list of electors in July, one of the commissioners resigned in protest, "citing his inability to be further involved with a process that he believed had been discredited." This resignation, less than two months before the election, embarrassed the commission and hurt its credibility. More grievous events followed; a month before election day, four journalists were brutally killed in the outskirts of Georgetown. Afterwards, Surujbally recalled, "it emerged that my name was on an assassination list." 

Surujbally and his supporters in the commission decided to restore confidence in the electoral process by publicizing their readiness to hold elections before the planned date, emphasizing the commission's capabilities and preparedness. But at the same time, three of the other elections commissioners held their own press conference "in which they said unanimously that the chairman was fooling the president in saying that we can bring off the elections, and fooling the nation at large," Surujbally reported. The chairman held another press conference in response, announcing a range of confidence-building measures, such as leaflets that detailed how to prevent voter fraud. Surujbally emphasized the importance of his resistance to external pressure: "Chairpersons can be intimidated massively whether because of tribalism, or politics, or just straight power." 

The 2006 election on August 28 was Guyana's most peaceful in more than a decade. Although the incumbent PPP won its fourth consecutive election, the PNC opposition did not reject the result and their supporters did not react violently. Thanks to its revamped elections process, the commission was able to release results within three days of the voting, before rumors and frustration got out of hand. 

The Commonwealth's observation mission noted a change in the media's behavior: "Noticeably reduced from the airwaves was the diet of wild rumors, inflammatory statements and accusations, which in the past, served only to fuel flames of fear, doubt, tensions, and confusion during election campaigns." Commonwealth observers also noted the absence of incitement to violence or hatred at meetings they attended. Trevor Benn from the UNDP felt the Social Cohesion Program had made a positive contribution: "[Participants] felt that someone was listening, and that they didn't need to use alternative means to get their point across." His colleague, Lawrence Lachmansingh, was more cautious, saying it was difficult to quantify the program's "contribution to a peace process ... particularly when so many others are involved." 

Rafael Trotman, the leader of a small party, echoed Lachmansingh's hesitation in attributing success directly to any of the new measures. He contended that the elections were peaceful mainly because people were tired of violence. Vincent Alexander from the UNDP pointed to lower voter turnout as evidence of this fatigue. Indeed, voter turnout in 2006 was 20 percent lower than in 2001, with roughly 65,000 fewer votes cast -- likely a contributing factor to the speedier vote tally in 2006. 

The elections commission itself weathered a number of storms in 2006. Although the commission generally managed to reach consensus, the polarized nature of its composition remained a looming issue. Chairman Surujbally helped minimize discord by abstaining on many votes, but the informal nature of his abstention did not betoken a permanent solution. 

Alexander of the UNDP saw hope for Guyana's political future in local government reform: Overhauling local elections had the potential "to reduce the political stakes at the center, and therefore reverse the need for ethnic politics at the center." He envisioned a future in which effective local politics "could eventually lead to national politics being issue-based, rather than ethnic-based." Aubrey Norton, a senior PNC member, thought the solution lay elsewhere -- specifically in power-sharing. He suggested that the two main parties would work together more if legislation required a two-thirds majority of parliament, rather than a simple majority. 

While many felt the interventions to reduce violence in 2006 were successful, ethnic tension re-emerged in the years after the 2006 elections, underscoring the work that remained. Remington Eastman of the Media Monitoring Unit worried that the media was fueling the renewal of tensions. "At the end of the [2006] elections, the media went back to its same old habits," he lamented. To reverse this backslide, the experiences of 2006 illustrated that successful elections required proactive initiative from many sectors: the elections commission, civil society, religious groups, international donors, and the media alike.    

Photo by JODY AMIET/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Paving the Way for Mandela's Election

Organizing the first post-apartheid election in 1994 took a lot of logistical planning and political inclusion. But it also took a lot of creativity in finding  solutions to the numerous problems that arose.

South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission faced a daunting task in January 1994. The newly established body had less than four months to organize and implement the country's first fully inclusive democratic elections. The stakes were high. A successful vote would signal a new beginning for the nation after the apartheid era. Failure could mean civil war. Sitting in his Johannesburg home in 2010, 77-year-old Johann Kriegler, who led the Independent Electoral Commission, reflected on that year. "We had the worst administration you can imagine," he said.  "But we had the political will and we were legitimate. That's what you need. If you haven't got a Mandela, you're in trouble!"

In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk, the leader of the minority white National Party, released African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, and lifted the apartheid-era ban on the ANC and other political organizations. But as the ANC and the National Party began bilateral talks, violence escalated and was particularly severe in KwaZulu-Natal, a quasi-independent area, where supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) frequently clashed. In the run-up to the election for the transitional government, no one knew for certain whether peace would prevail.

The opposition parties did not trust the old government's Department of Home Affairs, which had previously administered the country's elections, to run this new election; instead, they decided to set up an entirely new electoral commission. Under the 1993 Independent Electoral Commission Act, the president appointed 11 South African election commissioners and five international commissioners.  The South African commissioners had to be respected, representative, and suitably qualified members of society who did not hold high-profile political posts.  All commissioners were required to act impartially and independently. Selected commissioners included Johann Kriegler, who served on the Supreme Court; Ben van der Ross, who was working for a South African development agency; and Charles Nupen, who had run the ANC's first internal party elections in the early 1990s and had a background in mediation work. The electoral act also set up a Monitoring Directorate, mandated to keep tabs on every step of the electoral process. In many ways, the commissioners felt they were walking into the unknown when they took their posts. "It's rather like Ulysses passing through the gates of knowledge," Nupen said. "It's only when you pass through a particular gate that you begin to understand and recognize ... precisely what lies ahead."

The commission held its first substantive meeting in January 1994 and decided on an election date of April 27 -- a date that had "assumed great symbolic significance" when it was suggested in the constitutional roadmap of July 1993. The commission faced several logistical and political challenges. It would be the country's first inclusive elections: Under apartheid, only white South Africans could vote; now the electorate expanded six fold from 3 million to an estimated 18 million voters.

The commission decided early on that bringing all key political players into the electoral process was a priority. When the commission began its work, several important figures, such as leaders of "homeland" areas, did not cooperate, and had the potential to destabilize the elections. Under apartheid, black homeland areas had been set up by the white government to separate the black population. Homeland leaders consequently felt threatened by the transition to democracy because their political power depended on the apartheid system remaining in place; some even tried to prevent election-related activities in their territories. The white right similarly opposed the electoral process, such as the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), which promoted the idea of an Afrikaner people's state. Meanwhile, fringe elements of the white right went further, engaging in acts of violent sabotage. General distrust also increased the difficulty of winning cooperation between the two main parties, the National Party and the ANC.

The Department of Home Affairs provided some staff to the commission to assist in running the elections. Initially, many in the commission were suspicious of the staff from the old regime, but believed it important to use their skills -- they were the only organization in the country with any experience running elections. Norman du Plessis, who had helped draft some of the transitional legislation, was among those sent to help. According to head commissioner Kriegler, du Plessis "ultimately proved [to be] invaluable."

From the beginning, the commission worked closely with political parties.  Drawing inspiration from the peace committees that had worked on conflict resolution while the country negotiated the 1991 National Peace Accord, the commission set up a party liaison committee.  Each party nominated two members to the committee which operated behind closed doors as a forum for conflict management between the parties, with the electoral commission acting as arbiter.

On top of managing these political challenges, the commission faced numerous practical handicaps. Most of the commissioners' efforts focused on creating polling places, making sure candidates had access to voters, and drawing potential spoilers, such as the white right and some of the homeland leaders, into the process.

Because there was not enough time to compile a voter roll, determining eligibility would have to take place at each polling station. Yet many potential voters had no identity documents, so the electoral commission had to issue temporary voter cards where necessary.  The task was difficult to manage effectively in the limited time available. The Department of Home Affairs initially estimated that two and a half million temporary cards would be needed, but by the end of the election, the commission had issued over a million more than that. 

One of the biggest logistical challenges was determining suitable sites for polling stations. The parties agreed that every voter should be able to walk to a polling station, meaning about 9,500 polling sites had to be identified.  But the parties disagreed about precisely where the polling stations should be located and often pressured the commission to set up more polling stations in areas where they had the most support.

The commissioners and staff found it hard to pick station locations because they didn't know what facilities were available to use as voting stations. One commission official recalled the lack of current and detailed maps: "The rural areas had never been mapped... [and] there hadn't been a census of black people done in the country since the 1950s." Exacerbating these difficulties was that, in the absence of a voter roll, no one knew how many voters would show up at each polling station. The commission therefore contacted South African Breweries, the largest brewer in the country, and used its distribution figures as a proxy for where people lived. The problem, however, was that not everybody bought beer near their home. As a result, several large polling stations that the commission had planned based on beer sales remained virtually empty on Election Day, while others experienced long lines.

Throughout the four months preparation period, the political parties continued to negotiate aspects of the electoral process. One sudden change was to have separate ballots for the national and provincial elections, rather than one ballot. But an additional ballot box at each polling site meant that 1,500 of the 9,500 sites were too small and that more staff was required. The commissioners opted to use temporary polling stations that could be transported and set up easily. Van der Ross contacted a friend from a large construction firm, and "within 24 hours they actually designed a structure, made a prototype, brought it to Johannesburg, [and] rigged it up in our board room," he said. 

Identifying suitable polling sites was also difficult because the commission could not easily access certain areas of the country until near the election. For example, Lucas Mangope, the leader of the homeland Bophuthatswana, did not allow the electoral commission to work in his region and mobilized the Bophuthatswana Defence Force to crush local political dissent. But around mid-March, the Force mutinied, prompting paramilitary members of the Afrikaner Volksfront and the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) to enter the territory in a bid to shore up Mangope's power.  Violence escalated quickly until the South African Defence Force intervened to restore order. Bophuthatswana was subsequently reintegrated into South Africa's administration, and the electoral commission was able to access the territory.

The commission also had to facilitate parties' access to so-called "no-go" areas so that all parties could campaign freely across the country.   It launched a program called Operation Access to liaise with local party structures and organize public meetings. Through the program, candidates would travel together in minibuses and address crowds in short speeches. The commission organized 106 Operation Access meetings in total. Only one ended unsuccessfully, when two weeks before the election, candidates from the ruling National Party traveled with the program to campaign in Phola Park, an ANC stronghold southeast of Johannesburg. The candidates encountered a hostile crowd and when told by their army escorts that their safety could no longer be guaranteed, they decided to leave without campaigning.

The government intervention in Bophuthatswana caused at least one potential spoiler to join the electoral process. According to Kriegler, circulated footage of the far-right AWB members being shot point-blank in the conflict "put the fear of God into a lot of the right-wing." The AVF, the AWB's companions in the botched intervention in Bophuthatswana, then joined the elections under the party name Freedom Front. Nupen said that this was a "critically important watershed, because if they had become an abiding, destabilizing element, it would have made [the electoral process] very, very difficult."

To be as inclusive as possible, commissioners sometimes bent the rules in order to draw these disaffected parties into the electoral process. When the Freedom Front came to register, the commission extended the registration deadline so that it could submit its papers. The commission also extended the deadline for the Pan Africanist Congress. Kriegler remembered the head of the Pan Africanist Congress coming in with the registration documents after the midnight deadline: "There was the clock showing 20 to 1:00 in the morning, and du Plessis saying, 'It looks like five to 12:00 to me.'"

More challenging than bringing the white right into the electoral process, however, was persuading the leader of the KwaZulu homeland and the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the elections. Violent clashes continued between ANC and IFP supporters in the weeks before the elections, increasing concerns that the electoral administration in KwaZulu would be seriously compromised -- particularly as staff had already been taken hostage and even caught in the crossfire of a shootout. About a week before the elections, IFP leader Buthelezi agreed that his party would participate. However, the commission had to address the implications of the last-minute changes, such as issuing an additional 700,000 temporary voter cards in KwaZulu-Natal within the span of four days. Between 600 and 700 more polling stations also had to be identified, set up, and staffed. In the last two days before the elections, the commission recruited 13,000 additional staff.  It also had to modify the already-printed ballots, affixing millions of IFP stickers at the bottom of each ballot -- and had to compensate the National Party, which originally occupied the bottom spot of the ballots and had run an entire election campaign highlighting this fact.

Voting day itself was met with numerous obstacles. The polls opened a day early to allow the elderly, hospital patients, and the electoral staff to vote. What the commission had not bargained on was the hundreds of thousands who turned up, even though the polls were not open for regular voters. "So what does the presiding officer do?" Kriegler asked. "He says, 'Come in my brothers, come and vote.'" The early opening of many polling stations, combined with the absence of a voter roll, led to a shortage of ballots in many areas.  Polling stations in some areas were unable to function because of the shortages.   

The commission agreed to extend the voting to ensure everyone would get the chance to vote. It also had to arrange for many more ballots to be printed. Ballot boxes also were in short supply, forcing many presiding officers to take unconventional measures to store the completed ballots, opening closed boxes and restacking the papers to make more room. Voters' fingers were marked with ink that would show up under ultraviolet light, an important measure to prevent people from voting twice.  The commission decided to use ultraviolet ink with Kwazulu in mind: Before the IFP rejoined the elections, officials worried that marking voters' fingers with visible ink would make them vulnerable to attack.  If the IFP was not on the ballot, then anybody who cast a vote would necessarily be supporting the opposition -- visible ink would help the IFP's henchmen figure out who needed to be reprimanded.  But as voting got under way, supplies of ultraviolet ink quickly ran out. The forensic department of the police worked quickly on manufacturing and duplicating the special ink.

The commission was forced to rely on various officials at the polling stations to resolve other problems that continued to crop up. The communications infrastructure was so limited, especially in rural areas, that the commission could not be involved in sorting out every problem.  Even international election observers, in a breach of normal protocols, adopted a hands-on approach, guiding and assisting local-level election officials at moments when observers would usually just take notes.

The votes then had to be counted. The electoral commission had decided they would be counted in central counting stations (rather than where the votes were cast), but the number was far from enough.  Consequently, some counting stations faced enormous tasks. One in Johannesburg, for example, tallied three million votes, representing about 15 percent of the electorate. The electoral commission had devised a series of procedures to ensure that each ballot box could be traced back to its polling station. The problems started when exhausted electoral workers showed up at the counting stations to drop off the ballot boxes. "These people had been on duty for 48 and 72 hours. They weren't going to go and sit in a long line, waiting another four or five hours while hundreds of ballot boxes are being signed in and stamped," Kriegler said. "They came in and they said, ‘Here are your boxes. We've done our job.'"

At some counting stations, party agents could not agree on the final result; commissioners went to settle disputes and move the counting process along. When Kriegler arrived at a counting station, "there was a mountain... it must have been three meters high, 20 meters, 30 meters in diameter, of ballot boxes. Nobody had signed them in," he said. With the paperwork missing, and nobody knowing where the boxes came from, Kriegler decided the votes should be counted anyway. "I couldn't see any alternative," he said. "We would have had three million people who had stood for hours in the sun being disenfranchised because our process was defective, because we couldn't handle the volume of material? It could never be justified." Kriegler announced the election results on the afternoon of May 6, the final calculations still being tallied as he prepared to speak. The ANC won the election with 62.2 percent of the vote, making Mandela the country's first black president. 

Speaking in 2010, the commissioners offered a variety of explanations for why the elections were successful despite the daunting challenges. Ben van der Ross stressed Kriegler's key role, but also credited the South African people: "It worked because the people of South Africa really wanted it to work." Norman du Plessis stressed the electoral commission's financial independence from outside donors -- thereby giving it flexibility. The commission ran into many problems, but the group was able to identify - and thanks to a one-year 5% tax increase pay for -- solutions, proving crucial to the elections' success. Charles Nupen emphasized the role of the Monitoring Directorate and the party liaison committee, which harnessed conflict-management skills and embedded them in the election administration.  The Monitoring Directorate's oversight of the electoral process also gave confidence to the parties that both the process and the final result of the elections could be trusted.

The commission's timetable was short, but like many post-conflict countries, South Africa had to move fast. By demonstrating a high level of commitment, working closely with political parties to tackle problems head on, and seeking unique innovative solutions to last-minute glitches, the commission convinced a nation that it could believe in its founding elections.    

Photo by WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images