* Government praised for growth, criticized for crime
* Ethnic violence has marred previous votes
By Brian Ellsworth
GEORGETOWN, Nov 28 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)