Guyana seeks to break political deadlock with early vote

President of Guyana Donald Ramotar is seen in Port of Spain on June 2, 2013 (AFP Photo/Frederic Dubray) (AFP/File)

Georgetown (Guyana) (AFP) - Guyana votes Monday in early elections called by President Donald Ramotar after a showdown with the opposition-controlled parliament, which the leftist leader suspended to avoid a no-confidence vote.

Ramotar, whose party has been in power since 1992, is trying to fend off an upstart opposition coalition that is shaking up politics in the small South American country, with its broad multi-racial appeal and calls to end corruption.

Guyana's 750,000 people have roots in India, Africa and the Americas and have traditionally cast their ballots along racial lines.

But Ramotar's opponent, former army commander David Granger, and his five-party coalition are attracting voters from across the ethnic spectrum.

Granger's party, the People's National Congress-Reform (PNCR), whose traditional constituency is Afro-Guyanese, has joined forces with dissidents from Ramotar's People's Progressive Party-Civic (PPPC), whose base is those with ancestral roots in India.

The opposition held a one-seat majority in the outgoing parliament, which they used to block Ramotar's pet infrastructure projects and demand his administration give a more transparent account of its spending.

When Ramotar defied parliamentary budget cuts, spending the money anyway and submitting "Statements of Excesses" after the fact, the opposition called a no-confidence vote.

With the motion set to pass the 65-seat National Assembly, the president suspended parliament in November and then called general elections, setting them 18 months ahead of schedule.

There are no formal opinion polls in Guyana, but Barbados-based political scientist Peter Wickham said the opposition appeared to have the momentum.

The coalition includes both A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), which held 26 seats in the outgoing parliament, and the Alliance For Change (AFC), which held seven.

"Since this is now a formal alliance, I expect that they would win control of the executive as well as parliament this time around," Wickham told AFP.

- Fighting poverty, crime -

Guyana, a former British colony that shares cultural ties with the English-speaking Caribbean, is perhaps best known for the Jonestown massacre, the 1978 mass suicide of more than 900 adults and children from the People's Temple sect led by Jim Jones.

The third poorest country in South America, it has one of the world's highest emigration rates -- more than 55 percent of its citizens live abroad.

Granger has vowed to change that.

He has taken his campaign to New York and Toronto, promising Guyanese expatriates there to crack down on drug trafficking, gun crime and police bribery, making Guyana safe for them to return and help develop the country.

Granger, 69, is a career military officer with no political experience outside a losing presidential campaign in 2011.

Ramotar, 65, who won that election, is an economist and avowed Marxist-Leninist who spent much of his career as a Socialist apparatchik in Cuba, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

His party has brought improvements in health, education, housing and infrastructure to Guyana, where 43 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

But the PPPC has stumbled in recent years under the weight of corruption allegations.

- 'Corruption capital' -

"That is the number one issue in Guyana: thieving, corruption. We are the corruption capital of the world," said opposition prime ministerial candidate Moses Nagamootoo.

The opposition has vowed to create jobs, increase public sector wages and invest in law enforcement.

Ramotar's own economic plan is based on attracting international call centers to Guyana -- the only South American country where English is the official language -- and building a Chinese-funded airport, a 165-megawatt hydropower plant and a deep-water harbor with a road link to neighboring Brazil.

His projects will create thousands of jobs and make Guyana "a maritime hub for the rest of the Caribbean," he said recently.

Under Guyana's proportional representation system, the presidency will go to the party that claims the most seats in parliament.

There are some 570,000 registered voters.

More than 2,000 polling stations will open for voting at 6:00 am (1000 GMT) and close at 6:00 pm, with results expected only a day or two later.

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