GEORGETOWN (Reuters) - Guyana's ruling party won a fifth straight presidential election after a vote in the South American nation that the opposition alleged was rigged, the electoral commission said on Thursday.
The former British colony is politically divided between the descendants of African slaves, who tend to support the opposition, and more numerous ethnic Indians who have generally backed the ruling party.
The opposition had declared a crisis and said Monday's vote was "manipulated" in favor of the ruling People's Progressive Party/Civic, or PPP/C, led by Donald Ramotar, stoking fears of more ethnic unrest that blighted previous ballots.
"The people have spoken. The PPP/C has secured the Presidency of Guyana ... Our nation is once again on the road to progress," the PPP/C said in a statement.
Officials said the ruling party took 49 percent of the ballots cast. The opposition coalition led by David Granger, A Partnership for National Unity, or APNU, received 41 percent.
The ruling party, however, narrowly lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 19 years. The PPP/C chastised its supporters for not coming out to vote in greater numbers.
It said it "might almost have been the last free and fair election you would have experienced had the worst outcome been realized" and that low turnout "almost cost you your country" - statements unlikely to ease tensions.
The two main opposition parties now hold one seat more than the PPP/C, which will make governing more difficult for Ramotar than during the two terms of his predecessor, Bharrat Jagdeo.
"It's clear here that parts of our population have rejected the policies of the government," said Nigel Hughes of the Alliance For Change, a third party that had urged Guyanese to end a decades-old tradition of voting along racial lines.
International observers visiting the country of 750,000 people broadly gave the election a clean bill of health.
An APNU press official did not immediately respond to requests for comment. As of Thursday evening, the party had not posted any reaction on its Facebook page, where it previously posted statements about the election.
Guyana, on the Atlantic shore between Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil, is South America's fourth-largest bauxite miner and a producer of gold, sugar and timber.
PROTEST OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT
A group of several hundred mostly Afro-Guyanese demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building on Thursday, shouting, "We want Granger!" and "APNU!"
They pushed toward the parliament gate, but security officials convinced them to back off, at which point they began marching around the block. There was no immediate sign of the trouble some feared when the opposition alleged vote-rigging.
The demonstrators later marched to the Square of the Revolution, which honors an African slave called Cuffy whose 1763 rebellion against Dutch rule made him a national hero.
"From my point of view, it would be a shame and a slap in the face for us to accept Donald Ramotar as president," said protester Earlwayne Roach, 41, a self-employed vendor.
Granger appeared at the square and told supporters not to be unruly, but made few other comments. He said the APNU was reviewing the situation, and he asked the crowd to return at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT) on Friday.
Guyana's main ethnic groups normally coexist peacefully. But black Guyanese often complain they are locked out of jobs and denied opportunities by predominantly Indian descendants.
Racial tensions have triggered riots and looting in the past, especially during elections. A decade ago, several people were killed during post-vote violence.
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