During last week, the Stabroek News published an article (Akola Thompson “Towards a post-racial future” and a letter (Ryhaan Shaw “Little hope of a post-racial future for Guyana any time soon”) on the future of race in Guyana. Race is a difficult issue to discuss because of its complexity and intractability. But a peaceful and productive ethnic future for Guyana depends on how, and how urgently, we deal with the issue of race. Unless we do so soon, the sore of race in its several manifestations will continue to fester, producing infected material, draining the energy of Guyana into bad governance, marginalization and discrimination, crime and corruption.
Ethnic hatred, born of prejudices developed over centuries, having their bases usually, but not always, in economic factors, is difficult to eradicate, even as conditions of discrimination are alleviated by laws and social measures, as experience in the US has shown. Guyana’s situation may not be unique. Trinidad developed in a similar manner. Both countries have two large ethnic minorities that make up the large majority of the population. But our politics developed differently. The Peoples’ National Movement traditionally had a significant enough Indo-Trinidadian vote that kept it in office for decades during the era of Eric Williams. After that coalition fractured, Trinidad maintained a sizeable floating vote, comprising all sections of the populations, which resulted in periodic alternation between the parties, despite maintaining fairly rigid ethnic voting patterns and sensitivities.
Esther Perreira, a PNC supporter, filed an election petition in 1998, challenging the validity of the 1997 elections on several grounds, one of which was that the elections were unlawfully conducted. It was argued that the provision made in Election Laws (Amendment) Act 1997, which was supported unanimously in the National Assembly, that a voter must produce a voter identification card to be able to vote, was unconstitutional because it added a qualification to vote which was not countenanced by the constitution.
On 16 January 2001 Justice Claudette Singh (as she then was), now Chair of the Elections Commission, ruled that the requirement for a voter identification card was ultra vires articles 59 and 159 of the Constitution and, therefore, the elections were null and void. Justice Singh said: “…the constitutional right to vote would be denied to any person who did not produce such a card.” Justice Singh further noted that “with the introduction of the voter identification card, a person may be registered and still not be entitled to vote.”
Jaded by the PPP/C’s 23 years in office, many were elated at the coalition between the APNU and AFC because it offered the real possibility of ending the PPP/C’s long incumbency. APNU/PNCR had traditionally polled 40 to 42 percent of the vote and the AFC had obtained the support of 10 percent of the electorate in 2011. The Cummingsburg Accord, signed on February 14, 2018, and expiring on February 14, 2020, gave the AFC the Prime Ministership, 40 percent of the ministries and 12 seats, about 40 percent as it turned out, in the National Assembly. Discussions for a renewal of the Cummingsburg Accord prior to the March 2, 2020, general elections are not going well. Between the beginning stages, of the failure to find a creative interpretation of the Constitution to enable the Prime Minister to chair the Cabinet and, at the ending stages, the inability of the parties to agree on a formula for the division of spoils at the 2018 local government elections, and everything in between, it was anticipated that the coalition had challenges.
Soon after the formation of the Government in May 2015, dissatisfaction began to be expressed from within APNU that the AFC had been given an overgenerous portion of the coalition, about 40 percent, in National Assembly seats and in the Cabinet. Triumphalism and an unnatural confidence, born of an unnatural electoral history, that APNU can retain political power indefinitely without the AFC, led to the grumbling within APNU that the AFC had ‘got too much,’ that the Cummingsburg Accord was skewed in its favour. APNU failed to understand that it had to pay not merely for the coalition but also for the victory that the coalition would bring. Therefore, the 10 percent that the AFC was expected to bring to the coalition was worth the 40 percent price that APNU had to pay in order to dislodge the PPP/C and attain victory at the elections after 23 years of PPP/C rule.
As Guyana’s political season enters its beginning stages, a plethora of new political parties are coming forward to present their programmes to the electorate, seeking its support. While new parties emerging near to election time is not a new phenomenon, the numbers of new entrants to the political scene so far are unprecedented. Yesterday’s news suggest that another party, in addition to the Liberty and Justice Party (LJP), A New and United Guyana (ANUG) and The Citizens Initiative (TCI), and led by two prominent personalities, Messrs. Robert Badall and Nigel Hinds, is likely to be announced later this week. There is at least one other group organizing and preparing to launch a political party.
The immediate factor which may be responsible for the number of new political parties coming on stream at this time is probably the collapse of the Alliance For Change (AFC) which declined from 10 percent support in the 2011 general elections to 4 percent in the local government elections in 2018, and may have lost some more support since then. These new political parties could not have failed to observe that there is a pool of at least 6 percent of the electorate who may be looking for a political home. It is possible that the potential of attracting this support has been partially responsible for the number of new political parties being introduced to the electorate. It would not have been lost on these new parties that political support of the core Guyanese electorate has long been concretized by ethnic cleavages. Some are relying on the substantial youth vote on the basis that the youth are less motivated by ethnic considerations and more by matters of principle and policy.
It was on October 9, 1953, 66 years ago last week, that the Conservative British Government of Winston Churchill suspended what was known as British Guiana’s Waddington Constitution. It did so by passing an Order in Council which it enforced by sending to British Guiana an invasion army of 700 British troops. The intention was not merely to ensure that the 133-day old Government left office. It was to smash the democratic opening that British Guiana had achieved by destroying the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) which had spearheaded the campaign for universal adult suffrage with the ultimate objective of ending colonial rule. The PPP was democratic socialist, progressive, militant, impatient and intent on eliminating the intense poverty that gripped the majority of the Guianese people. The British Government had been persuaded by local reactionary forces that had travelled to London after the April elections in which the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats, that the PPP represented the forces represented the existential threat of ‘international communism.’
The Waddington Constitution that the British Government suspended had granted universal adult suffrage to British Guiana for the first time, eliminating property qualifications. It also allowed a modest measure of democratic rule by permitting an elected Legislative Council and a Cabinet comprising Ministers appointed by the party commanding the majority of votes. The PPP formed that Government, which had little authority, having to defer to the Executive Council of unelected officials headed by the British Governor. This did not stop the PPP Government from immediately setting about to alleviate the atrocious conditions of workers.