Guyana poll pits race against self-interest

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The Independent Online
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President Desmond Hoyte is calculating that, when Guyana's voters go to the polls today for the country's first free elections since 1964, they will put self-interest before race and thereby ensure his re-election.

His main rival is Cheddi Jagan, veteran leader of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), who was twice chief minister of British Guiana before independence in 1966. A victory for Mr Jagan would mean not only the departure of Mr Hoyte after seven years in power, but also the end of 28 years of uninterrupted rule by the predominantly black People's National Congress (PNC). Mr Jagan has the overwhelming support of East Indians, people of Asian descent, who make up slightly more than half the 800,000 population.

Mr Jagan, 74, has allowed his campaign copywriters to play heavily on the racial angle. A recent full-page newspaper advertisement showed a grainy picture of an Indo-Guyanese man towing a coffin, with text concentrating on 'the last horrible 28 years' and urged voters to 'exorcise the ghost of PNC's rigged elections'. But Mr Jagan also vows to end racial politics, and has a black running-mate, Sam Hinds, as evidence of his good faith.

The PPP leader has abandoned the fiery Marxist rhetoric that used to be his hallmark. He has even undertaken to continue the successful economic liberalisation programme begun by President Hoyte, who jettisoned the statist policies of his predecessor, Forbes Burnham. Guyana has enjoyed a 6-7 per cent growth rate for the past two years, and therein lies Mr Hoyte's best hope of being re-elected. Wages have tripled in the sugar-growing regions, the traditional stronghold of the PPP, and the President has drawn unusually large crowds at campaign rallies in these areas. The sugar industry, nationalised after independence, is now managed by Booker-Tate.

PNC strategists have emphasised Mr Hoyte's leadership qualities and his 'vision'. His proposals to privatise 38 state-owned corporations, about half of which have already been sold, have attracted interest from potential foreign investors in such industries as mining, sugar and timber, which became badly run-down during the years of Burnham's 'co-operative republic'. Foreign exchange reserves are now around dollars 100m, and the Guyana dollar is relatively stable.

Mr Hoyte has also been cultivating a 'green' image, donating nearly a million acres of virgin rainforest to the Commonwealth- funded Iwokrama project, which will develop ways to control the impact of forest-based industries.

The elections were originally due in 1990, but were twice postponed because of serious problems with the electoral register. The PPP was not alone in contending that the register was rigged by the PNC to make sure it remained in power for ever - the Carter Center in Atlanta, which is supplying up to 100 monitors for today's voting, agreed that there could not be fair elections using the unpurged lists. They had been compiled by the ruling party's own computer centre and were found to be more than 30 per cent inaccurate. That problem has now been put right, thanks in large measure to pressure from the United States, the United Nations and the Commonwealth.