On Friday last, 13 political parties submitted lists of candidates to the Elections Commission in a self-nomination process to contest the general and regional elections on March 2. There was a full turnout of dignitaries – members of the Elections Commission and the diplomatic corps. Even though they were merely observers, their presence lent gravitas to the occasion. The only sour note in the entire process was APNU+AFC’s ‘success’ in catapulting itself into first place to present its lists after three parties, The New Movement (TNM), the United Republican Party (URP) and A New and United Guyana (ANUG) had camped out in front of the Umana Yana for several days and APNU+AFC showed up on Friday morning and mysteriously displaced the three small parties that had made the effort to secure an early place. It is hoped that this type of behavior, referred to many as “bullyism,’ especially of small parties, would not characterize the election campaign. However, the contingents of APNU+AFC and the PPP/C outside the Umana Yana were in good spirits and showed no signs of antagonism. Of course, they were not there at the same time.
The large number of small parties, 11 in all, is a new feature at these elections, having showed a decline in recent years as a result of the introduction of geographical constituencies in 2001. A minimum number of 6 of these constituencies have to be contested and each list has to be supported by the signatures of 150 persons who are registered to vote. These elections obviously have something special that has attracted the interest of small parties. Having regard to their varied platforms, it is clear that the re-emergence of small parties at this time, notwithstanding the difficult requirements, is reflective of the grave dissatisfaction with the agenda of the major political parties and the adherence to ethnic voting patterns, which ignores the vital issues affecting the country. Most small parties believe that the policies of the major parties cater to ethnic interests and no or little effort is made to bring the people of Guyana together. The apotheosis of these policies was the no confidence motion and the clear violation of the Constitution which has totally disgusted small parties and is one of the reasons that inspired them to enter the political arena.
If one of the two main political groups in Guyana, the Peoples’ Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) or the A Partnership For National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) achieves an absolute majority at the March 2 general elections, one half of the population will feel alienated. This alienation has been the signal feature of Guyana’s politics since 1957. It has grown progressively worse since then, aggravated by and/or resulting in Guyana’s history of electoral manipulation, discrimination, and criminal and civil violence since 1962.
To eliminate this albatross, Guyana needs a political system where the main political parties alternate in power every two terms, or one where the two political parties share power equally. Since the former is difficult to constitutionally structure under a system of free, but adversarial, elections, the latter appears to be the only route out of a political dilemma which has emerged from the existence in Guyana of two large ethnic blocs that manifest their insecurities in fixed electoral choices.
The spectacle of a Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, a world renowned fighter for human rights, and former political prisoner, denying genocide during last week at the World Court is sobering. Let there be no doubt, there is no objective reason, no political rationale, no need to maintain any democratic opening in Myanmar, that motivates Aung San Suu Kyi. It is naked ethnic hatred.
In June this year, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner found common cause with Victor Orban, the far right Hungarian autocrat, as they lamented the increasing migration and the “emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.” Aung San Suu Kyi has been so caught up in the vortex of ethnic hatred of the Rohingya Muslims that she prefers to endure worldwide condemnation rather than use her considerable influence to protect the Rohingya people from the genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State in the northwest region of Myanmar.
The terms of the coalition between the APNU and AFC appear to have been agreed. The core elements are that Minister Khemraj Ramjattan will be the Prime Ministerial candidate and the split will be 60:40 instead of 70:30. AFC will obtain 10 seats in Parliament instead of 12 and 5 Cabinet positions, down from 6. President Granger will likely be head of the list, or otherwise choose the MPs and if he chooses to retire before the end of the term, Minister Ramjattan, as Prime Minister, will not succeed him. If this happens the Government will be forced to engage in the same constitutional dance that the PPP/C was forced into in 1999 when President Janet Jagan resigned, and which was extensively criticized by the then PNC/R. Mr. Sam Hinds had to resign as Prime Minister so that Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo could be appointed to that post to be in a position to succeed Mrs. Jagan when she resigned. Mrs. Jagan then resigned as President and Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo succeeded her. He then re-appointed Mr. Sam Hinds as Prime Minister. There is no other constitutional means by which this could have been accomplished.
Despite the apparent disagreements and extensive discussions to resolve them, observers were never in doubt that the coalition would survive, even if the AFC had to make concessions. The APNU in all its past manifestations has never legitimately won more 42 percent of the vote. With the AFC as a coalition partner, it won 50+ percent, the first time in its history. The AFC’s concessions were very modest, having regard to the party’s poor showing at the local government elections, managing to acquire only 4 percent of the vote. A drop from 10 percent of the vote in 2011, and thereabouts in 2015, to 4 percent in 2018, would have suggested that APNU was in a good position to demand more. But the need to have the AFC on board and the AFC’s aggressive posturing during negotiations obviously carried the day by forcing APNU to accept only nominal concessions in percentages and, more significantly, Khemraj Ramjattan as Prime Minister candidate. APNU was forced to drop its favoured friend Moses Nagamootoo.
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.