* Government praised for growth, criticized for crime
* Ethnic violence has marred previous votes
By Brian Ellsworth
GEORGETOWN, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Guyanese voted on Monday for a new president with the ruling party favored to extend its two-decade rule as voters weighed economic progress against discontent with crime and graft in the South American nation.
The resource-rich country -- the region’s fourth-largest miner of bauxite and also a producer of gold, sugar and timber -- wants to attract more foreign investment to expand its mining sector and improve infrastructure.
Incumbent President Bharrat Jagdeo’s ruling People’s Progressive Party/Civic, known as the PPP/C, is credited with helping Guyana out of economic chaos in the 1980s that included food shortages, soaring inflation and crippling foreign debt.
Growth has averaged about 4 percent in recent years and is projected at about 4.8 percent in 2011, the IMF says.
Career politician Donald Ramotar, 61, is the candidate of the PPP/C, which is heavily backed by the country’s majority ethnic Indians and has ruled since 1992.
Though there are no independent polls, he is favored to win due to strong party machinery and demographic advantage.
The vote, however, may be tighter than the PPP/C’s past four consecutive wins.
Interview with government candidate [ID:nB304392]
Factbox on Guyana [ID:nB304680 ]
“Words can’t express what the PPP has done for Guyana,” said housewife Geeta Kuldip, 33. “When I was a little girl we had to line up for food. Now I can go to the supermarket and buy anything I want.”
Ramotar’s main challenger is former military commander David Granger, 66, of opposition coalition A Partnership for National Unity, largely backed by African-descended Guyanese.
An increasingly influential dissident third party known as the AFC, which has urged an end to the decades-old tradition of raced-based voting, could draw ethnic Indian voters away from the ruling party.
Elections have sometimes ended in violence between Guyanese of Indian and African descent.
Those tensions were in evidence as Ramotar voted at a polling station where most voters were black. When he walked to the front of the queue, where some people had been waiting more than an hour, there were shouts and jeers.
Ramotar stayed upbeat. “I think the PPP will win this election in a big way,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work so I‘m very confident.”
Whoever wins the vote is expected to maintain market-friendly policies in the former British colony.
Jagdeo is barred from running for a third term due to a constitutional change he brought in.
Party supporters hail his efforts to build schools, hospitals and bridges in a country where land travel often requires spending hours on muddy two-lane roads.
The three parties over the weekend held final rallies in Georgetown where supporters waved party flags and danced to campaign-inspired reggae and soca songs.
First results were expected as early as Monday night.
Jagdeo faces criticism over security problems linked to drug trafficking, including the 2008 massacre of 11 people in the town of Lusignan by drug gangs and the assassination of the country’s agriculture minister in 2006.
The isolated hinterlands of the country, which is larger than England but only has a population of 750,000, have become transshipment points for drugs from Colombia and neighboring Venezuela, Granger said in an interview.
“Jagdeo leaves office with a legacy of failing to bring crimes under control,” he told Reuters. “We intend to stop crime, gun running and money laundering.”
The government is also accused of plundering public coffers, criticism often summed up with the creole-English catch-phrase “dem teef too much” (they thief too much).
Moses Nagamootoo, once a high-ranking official of the PPP/C who left the party in recent weeks, said Jagdeo’s government had gotten too close to drug traffickers, abused the system of government contracts and concentrated power in his own hands.
In candid conversations with a visiting reporter, Guyanese said voters usually cast their ballot based on racial affiliation rather than electoral issues.
With Indians the largest group, the Indian-linked PPP/C party has won every election since Guyana’s 1966 independence except for those rigged during an era of dictatorship. (Additional reporting by Neil Marks; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bill Trott)