OPINION: Guyana’s voters went to the polls on Monday and the one thing that will unite most of them is the hope that these general elections will lift the uncertainty that has hung over the country since President David Granger’s administration lost a vote of confidence in December 2018.
In the context of a troubled past of political and racial conflict, polling appeared to go relatively peacefully.
Guyana is rich in natural resources such as timber, gold and bauxite, but is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the Americas.
The country now, however, expects to be producing 750,000 barrels per day of oil by mid-decade and, with a host population of just 780,000, Guyanese can dream about a dramatic leap in prosperity.
It was hardly surprising that the opposition Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) made a push for power ahead of an election with such high stakes, forcing the no-confidence vote through by securing a single defection from the governing coalition.
The reality of managing the oil wealth carries its own challenges and the Guyanese do not have to look too far to see the risks involved.
Nearby Venezuela has one of the highest number of barrels per capita in terms of oil reserves, yet bad government has left millions in grinding poverty and its oil industry in seemingly permanent decline.
Guyana’s handling of its new situation so far has its good points.
The PPP government that held power until losing to Granger’s coalition in 2015 may have faced accusations of cronyism but managed to attract high-calibre explorers to what was an unfancied frontier play.
Granger’s administration has been criticised for failing to extract better terms from ExxonMobil, but wisely sought independent advice on issues of governance and had made some progress in putting together important parts of a new administrative framework for oil wealth — including the creation of a sovereign wealth fund, and rules for its management.
On the negative side, the acrimonious political struggle over holding the elections has distracted officials from the work that needs to be done as Guyana prepares for the inflow of oil money.
The sharp racial divide between the two main parties gives these high-stake elections a tinder box aspect.
Although Granger’s ruling coalition is nominally multi-racial, it is in dominated by the predominantly Afro-Guyanese Partnership for National Unity.
Against this backdrop, one threat to stability seems to be the slowness of the electoral process itself.
Aware of such concerns, Guyana’s electoral commission (Gecom) made moves to improve transparency by publishing results online, although this was still moving slowly as Upstream went to press.
Tasks such as modernising Guyana’s electoral process suddenly seem eminently achievable, but a peaceful and democratic transition is the most vital challenge.
Guyana's economy is forecast to grow by 86% this year and the government’s share of oil revenue to hit $15 billion in real terms by 2025 — more than three times Guyana’s current gross domestic product.
Both main political groupings say they want to use this wealth to pursue sustainable development strategies.
One priority should be investing in training resources that could allow the populace to take proper advantage of the oil wealth with jobs and careers, hopefully reversing the country's brain drain.
Guyana's next government would do well to keep such principles in mind and resist the kind of populist practices that can create a culture of dependence.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)