When Guyana’s indigenous peoples took to the polls last year there was a recorded high volume of spoilt ballots, low voter turnout and even evidence of them being misled by at least one major party, says the Electoral Assistance Bureau.
The country’s indigenous people were at a disadvantage when compared to city voters because of the language barrier given their diverse and sometimes only language, the local election’s watchdog added in its report and recommendations for last year’s elections. “Most indigenous peoples in Guyana encounter English as a second language and are in remote areas where they do not benefit from a free flow of information so that they are properly informed about the pros and cons of different political parties,” the report said.
The EAB also noted that voter education was also limited in the hinterland which resulted in simple errors and could have been avoided. “The highest levels of rejection due to voter action in the elections were in Regions 1, 7, 8, and 9 where the majority of voters were indigenous peoples, suggesting that voter education efforts may not have been as effective in these areas.”
The report added “There were a considerable number of voters who did not fully comprehend how to fold their ballots. This problem was prevalent in indigenous communities.” Noted too was that when questions arose and were posed to polling day staff by Amerindians in their native languages, responses were given in English. The EAB recommended that “Gecom should ensure that all polling day staff from indigenous communities are trained in English and their native language and all voter education… done in English as well as the relevant indigenous language using indigenous experts,” the report said. It added that the act by Gecom will give indigenous people an equal opportunity to understand and participate in the election process.
The non-governmental observer group also stated that low voter turnout was prevalent in the remote areas of indigenous communities. “It is noteworthy that the lowest turnout was in areas where indigenous peoples make up most of the electorate (Regions 1, 7, 8, and parts of Region 10), suggesting a relatively lower level of participation of indigenous peoples in the elections.”
Noted too was the timing of grants and other handouts given to indigenous communities which according to the EAB seemed to be a direct tool used to attract the votes of those residents. The EAB said the PPP/C also had to its advantage the use of the lone state-owned radio station which is in most instances the only means of news that hinterland residents have. “This is an issue of concern because indigenous peoples are located in remote communities where their isolation also produces a disproportionate exposure to the incumbent party,” the report said.
An unnamed political party was also said to have been misleading Region 1 residents into believing that if they voted for another party they would lose their Old Age Pension and other benefits since the other party, if allowed to govern would eliminate such benefits.
It is against this background that the EAB said that the proposed elections protection bureau should set up a political campaign monitoring unit to scrutinize the parties’ actions when campaigning in indigenous communities. The body should focus on “the use of gifting to acquire votes, spreading misinformation, rumour mongering, slander and use of scare tactics; and media coverage in indigenous villages.” The EAB said, “Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to this kind of willful dishonesty and rumour mongering, as they do not have access to information as readily as coastland communities.”