Tensions were raised in Guyana ahead of elections on 11 May following the murder of an anti-government protester. The political activist, Courtney Crum-Ewing, had been holding quixotic but peaceful solo demonstrations outside the office of the attorney-general for 80 days.
The Stabroek News reported that ‘shortly before he was killed [he was] urging voters to not stay at home come May 11 but to take to the polls to oust the incumbent PPP [People’s Progressive Party] government.’
The Guyanese president and PPP general secretary, Donald Ramotar, condemned the killing of Crum-Ewing and urged the police to find those responsible. However, many people have assumed that government forces were responsible and that it was unequivocally an assassination. ‘People are out to kill anti-dictatorship activists in this country,’ was the response of Frederick Kissoon, another activist and Kaieteur News columnist, who said that Crum-Ewing’s death was ‘a message to the Guyanese people… I think the PPP feels that never before in their history have they been so vulnerable to losing power.’
Crum-Ewing, 40, was gunned down by a group of men in a car as he walked through a housing scheme near where he lived in East Bank Demerara, urging people to turn out to vote. Fears that it had been an extrajudicial killing were not eased by his autopsy, which found that he had been shot five times – three shots to the head and another at point-blank range from behind his neck, Stabroek News reported.
His family appealed for calm but were convinced that his death was because of his political activism and urged people to express their anger by voting. ‘Courtney would have wanted Guyana to vote for a change. Everybody on the list should come out. It is time that Guyana vote for change. Everybody who is on the list have [sic] to come out and vote,’ said his mother, Donna. She also voiced fears of a police cover-up to protect two government ministers she alleged were implicated in her son’s murder.
Kaieteur News said: ‘His activism drew criticisms and some subtle attempts to shut him up. A few months ago, he parked his [mini]bus at his home and it was broken into and the computer box stolen. He was convinced that it was deliberately done.’
Mike McCormack, of the Guyana Human Rights Association, said: ‘The man was expressing himself freely and if freedom of expression is coming at this price, then everybody needs to be concerned about it. Courtney Crum-Ewing was threatening no one. But the message seems to have been threatening enough to assassinate him.’
Another activist, Mark Benschop, criticised the international community for ‘treating the Guyana government with very soft gloves… this government has been associated with death squads.’
The party has been in power since 1992 but in the 2011 elections, when Ramotar first became president, the PPP’s share of the vote slipped and it became a minority government for the first time in 19 years. This was down to the strong showing of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU – a coalition of the People’s National Congress, the Guyana Action Party and the Working People’s Alliance), which won 26 seats on 40.8% of the vote to the PPP’s 32 (48.6%). The Alliance for Change (AFC) won seven seats in 2011 on 10.3% of the vote.
The stakes for the PPP have risen: the electoral arithmetic is looking good for the opposition and in January the APNU and the AFC began negotiating a single list of candidates. Four years ago there was a heavy army presence during the elections to prevent a repeat of the unrest between Guyana’s ethnic groups that persisted for weeks after the 2001 polls. The Commonwealth must do all it can to ensure that if the PPP’s time in government is finally up, there is an orderly transfer of power.