Guyana tense as Jagan poised to win election

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TENSION was high yesterday in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, as results trickling in from Monday's presidential election appeared to give a comfortable majority to Cheddi Jagan, the veteran leader of the opposition People's Progressive Party (PPP).

With about 20 per cent of the ballots counted, the independent Election Commission gave Mr Jagan 64.3 per cent, and 31.8 per cent to President Desmond Hoyte, leader of the ruling People's National Congress (PNC). The remainder were shared between nine small parties. Pre-election opinion polls had given Mr Jagan a narrow lead over Mr Hoyte, who has been President since 1985.

But at the same time government radio, controlled by the PNC, was announcing that Mr Hoyte was in the lead with 52 per cent of the votes counted. It quoted the party's own polling agents as the source.

As armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets and shops remained shuttered, uncertainty was compounded by inexplicable delays in the count. By midday the returning officer for the district including Georgetown had still not delivered 160 ballot boxes to the Election Commission, even though the votes had all been counted.

Jimmy Carter, the former US president, in Guyana at the head of a team from his elections monitoring centre in Atlanta, was expected to make an announcement later in the day on the basis of results tabulated by his officials in 10 constituencies.

During Monday night PNC supporters had laid siege to the Election Commission headquarters, and two people were killed when President Hoyte ordered troops to restore order. Protesters claimed that PPP officials had taken control of polling stations in traditional PNC strongholds and were preventing them from casting their votes. The Prime Minister, Hamilton Green, even suggested on Monday night that the PNC was considering a legal challenge to the results, which at that stage had only just started to come in.

The US ambassador, George Jones, and officials from a Commonwealth observers team said yesterday that they had seen no signs of electoral fraud.

But there were fears yesterday that the strong racial bias in Guyanese politics could spill over into violence between black PNC supporters and activists of the PPP, whose constituency is overwhelmingly among the Indian (Asian) community. Indians make up more than half of Guyana's population of about 800,000, while Afro-Guyanese account for more than 30 per cent.

The PNC has enjoyed uninterrupted power since before Guyana's independence from Britain in 1966, and in the past the PPP has tended to accuse the official apparatus of rigging elections.

Mr Jagan, 74, was a left-wing thorn in the flesh of the British colonial authorities, but he has recently moderated his rhetoric, accepting the free-market reforms adopted by Mr Hoyte over the past three years.