The original Guiana was inhabited by semi-nomadic Amerindian tribes who lived by hunting and fishing – notably Arawaks and Caribs. It was divided by European powers into Spanish Guiana (Venezuela), Portuguese Guiana (Brazil), French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Suriname) and British Guiana (Guyana). Colonial competition for territory began with the Spanish sighting in 1499. Probably temporary Spanish or Portuguese settlements were followed by Dutch settlement, first unsuccessfully at Pomeroon, and then (in 1627) under the protection of the Dutch West India Company on the Berbice river. Despite yielding from time to time to British, French and Portuguese invasions, the Dutch kept control until 1814, when the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were ceded to Britain. The Europeans imported African slaves to develop their plantations, first of tobacco and later sugar, and to labour on constructing the coastal drainage system and the elegant city of Georgetown. Some slaves escaped to the forest; these so-called ‘bush-blacks’ eked out a living by panning for gold, hunting and subsistence agriculture.
The British administration merged the three colonies into British Guiana in 1831, but retained the Dutch administrative, legislative and legal system, whereby the country was directed by a governor, advised by councils of plantation owners. After the abolition of slavery, Indian and smaller numbers of Portuguese, Chinese and Javanese indentured labourers were brought in to work the estates.
In 1928 a legislative council, with members appointed by the British Government, was established, but members were elected after extensions of the franchise in 1943 and 1945. The country was by this period among the most advanced of the British colonial territories in the region, and became the headquarters of several regional educational and political institutions. CARICOM still has its headquarters in Georgetown.
In 1953, a constitution with a bicameral legislature and ministerial system, based on elections under universal adult suffrage, was introduced. There was a general election, won by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddi Jagan. The PPP had a large East Indian following, whereas the People’s National Congress (PNC), a breakaway party formed in 1957, had its roots among Guyanese of African origin. Shortly after the 1953 elections, the UK suspended the constitution, decided to ‘mark time’ in the advance towards self-government, and administered the country with a government composed largely of nominated members.
When, in 1957, the UK did introduce elected members, the legislature voted for more representative government. The UK called a constitutional conference which was held in 1960 and provided for a new constitution with full internal self- government. In the elections held in August 1961 under this constitution, the PPP again gained the majority. The UK held further constitutional conferences in 1962 and 1963, to settle terms for independence, but ethnic divisions prevented the leaders of Guyana’s three political parties from being able to reach consensus among themselves on the terms of a constitution; they then asked the UK to settle the matter.
The UK selected a form of proportional representation which was aimed at preventing domination by any single ethnic group. (It was also argued that, at this period of the ‘Cuba crisis’ with near- war between the USA and USSR, the UK was under pressure to avoid allowing a socialist government to come to power in Guyana.) Despite renewed disturbances, elections were held under the PR system, and brought to power a coalition of the PNC led by Forbes Burnham and The United Force (TUF).
The new government finalised independence arrangements at a further constitutional conference, which was boycotted by the PPP. Guyana became independent and joined the Commonwealth in May 1966, and became a republic four years later.
The PNC led by Burnham was returned in 1968 elections and remained in power until 1992 (despite repeated electoral disputes). During the 1970s, 80 per cent of the economy was nationalised. These were years of considerable unrest and increasing economic difficulty, as debt rose and world prices for the major exports fell. The PPP, led by Dr Cheddi Jagan, remained in opposition. Executive presidency was introduced in 1980. In 1985 Burnham died and was replaced by Desmond Hoyte.
The elections due in 1990 were postponed twice, in part because the Commonwealth observer team invited by President Hoyte’s administration reported irregularities in the voters’ rolls and proposed that certain preparatory arrangements should be done again. When the elections were held, in October 1992, the PPP–Civic coalition, led by Jagan, won 53.5 per cent of the votes, giving it 28 seats; the PNC won 23, the TUF and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) one each. The Commonwealth observers described the elections as ‘a historic democratic process’ which expressed the people’s genuine will. Jagan was sworn in as President.
In March 1997 Jagan suffered a heart attack and died. Samuel Hinds, Prime Minister in Jagan’s PPP–Civic government, became President and Janet Jagan, Jagan’s US-born widow, was appointed Prime Minister and Vice-President. Mrs Jagan was one of the four founders of the PPP, and had served in two previous cabinets. In the December 1997 elections the PPP–Civic coalition claimed a decisive victory with 56 per cent of the officially counted votes. Mrs Jagan became Guyana’s first woman President and appointed Hinds Prime Minister.
However, the opposition PNC refused to accept the declared results. Increasingly violent demonstrations followed and were only ended when, in January 1998, CARICOM brokered an agreement between the PPP–Civic and PNC. Under the Herdmanston Accord, CARICOM would undertake an audit of the election results, to be conducted by a team selected by the then CARICOM chair, Dr Keith Mitchell, the Prime Minister of Grenada. A broad-based Constitutional Reform Commission would be established, to report to the National Assembly within 18 months. And there would be new elections within 18 months after presentation of the report.
The CARICOM audit team reported that although the management of the count left much to be desired ‘the results of their recount varied only marginally from that of the final results declared by the Chief Elections Officer’. But the PNC remained dissatisfied and violent demonstrations broke out again. A settlement was finally reached at the CARICOM summit in Saint Lucia in July 1998, under which the PNC agreed to take their seats in the National Assembly.
President Janet Jagan resigned after suffering a mild heart attack in August 1999 and was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo.
The Constitutional Reform Commission’s proposals were enacted in 2000. These included establishment of a permanent elections commission and new national identity cards.