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article imageSoldiers patrol Guyana as presidential election votes roll in

By Denis Chabrol (AFP)     May 12, 2015 in World

Guyana deployed soldiers late Monday as reports of intimidation capped a day of otherwise peaceful elections in the small South American country that pitted President Donald Ramotar against an upstart opposition alliance.

Votes were expected to roll in late into the night in the race between Ramotar, whose party has ruled the since 1992, and the alliance, which is seeking to unite voters across racial lines with calls to end corruption.

An official declaration is scheduled for sometime Wednesday, owing to difficulties in transporting ballot boxes across the rugged country.

Steve Surujbally, chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission, told a news conference that voting was "smooth" but he was concerned about persons remaining around polling stations long after the end of voting.

He said the Guyana police force commissioner had called for joint patrols with Guyana Defence Force troops, "as a result of expressions of intimidation by members of the electorate, coupled with a few incidents in Georgetown."

He also called on Ramotar and the opposition coalition's presidential candidate, David Granger, to implore supporters to go home.

P. Dere / A. Bommenel, abm/jj/gil, AFP

Ramotar had called the elections to end a standoff with the opposition-controlled parliament, which he suspended to avoid a no-confidence vote.

The leftist leader hopes to shore up the mandate of his People's Progressive Party-Civic (PPPC) and stop parliament from thwarting his pet infrastructure projects -- including a new international airport, a 165-megawatt hydropower plant and a high-tech specialty hospital.

But the new five-party opposition coalition is shaking up politics in Guyana. Its 750,000 people have roots in India, Africa and the Americas, and have traditionally voted along ethnic lines.

It brought together traditionally Afro-Guyanese and Indian Guyanese parties and is also seeking to win the indigenous Amerindian vote to take both the presidency and the 65-seat National Assembly.

Guyana, a former British colony on the northeast coast of South America, shares cultural ties with the English-speaking Caribbean.

It is the third poorest country in South America, with 43 percent of the population living in poverty.

It is perhaps best known abroad 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.

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

Assistant Police Commissioner Leslie James said voting had been "steady and peaceful," though there were reports of long lines at some of the more than 2,000 polling stations.

Except for fast-food restaurants, most businesses closed their doors for the day, and very few of the privately owned buses -- the main means of public transportation -- plied the streets.

Polls closed at 6:00 pm (2200 GMT) Monday.

There are 570,000 registered voters but authorities acknowledge the voter roll is bloated because the names of many dead people and emigrants have not been erased.

Guyana has one of the world's highest emigration rates -- more than 55 percent of its citizens live abroad.

Except for diplomatic staff, Guyanese expatriates are not allowed to vote unless they return home to cast their ballots.

The PPPC complained that some people had voted multiple times while others were prevented from casting their ballots, and said that a dossier of problems would be dispatched to the elections commission.

However, the opposition coalition said it was generally pleased with the process.

- Crime, violence, corruption -

Granger, the opposition coalition's 69-year-old presidential candidate, is a retired army commander -- a career military officer with no political experience outside losing the 2011 presidential race to Ramotar.

But he has established himself as a serious contender with a platform centered on security issues -- a key concern for voters fed up with drug crimes, human trafficking, gun violence and corruption.

The general elections come after opposition parties blocked Ramotar's funding requests in parliament, demanding more transparent accounting of government spending.

When the 65-year-old leader 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 president suspended parliament in November and then called elections, setting them 18 months ahead of schedule.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, whose international rights organization is observing the election, cut short his trip to Guyana on Sunday after becoming sick.

The 90-year-old statesman had recovered well enough to deliver the opening speech at a Carter Center event Monday in Atlanta on ending sexual exploitation, the organization said.

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