On Wednesday last the public was treated to a brilliant and expansive lecture by the former Chancellor (ag) of the Judiciary and now Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at the University of Guyana, Carl Singh. The subject was “The Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Rights and the Citizen. The lecture, to a packed hall and attentive audience at Herdmanston House, was the third in the series “Conversation on Law and Society.” Chancellor Singh started by pointing out that while citizens may not always be cognizant of what their right are, they are certainly aware that the Constitution guarantees them, which they are often prepared to aggressively defend. He related the story of a visitor to a hospital in Georgetown who was being prevented from entering because the visiting hours had come to an end. During the argument between the visitor and the hospital staff, the visitor loudly proclaimed that it was her constitutional right to enter the hospital to visit her relative!
Chancellor Singh explored a wide range of issues, not all of which can be examined here. A few are selected.
At the event marking the 100th Birth Anniversary of Cheddi Jagan sponsored by the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, former President Bharrat Jagdeo expressed fears that the general elections due in 2020 will be rigged. President Jagdeo cited the circumstances leading up to the appointment of the Chair of the Elections Commission, namely, President Granger’s rejection of three lists of a total of eighteen names, and the President’s choice of Justice James Patterson. President Granger had the authority to appoint a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge, if he rejected the list of the Leader of the Opposition on the ground that the names submitted were not acceptable to him. It was a controversial departure by the President from the formula adopted in 1992, which had subsequently received constitutional imprimatur.
Rigged elections have had a long, known and sordid history in Guyana. Surprisingly, instead of leaving the past behind after the reforms of 1990-1992, it was the PNC that became the accuser, alleging that elections between 1992 and 2006 were rigged. Observers noted that 40 percent average it obtained from 1992 onwards, after the large majorities between 1968 and 1985 had to be explained. The rigging of the elections thereafter was the explanation, justifying the large majorities. But it might have been the symptom of the deeper ethnic malaise that afflicts Guyana, just as the PPP’s claims that the elections of 2011 and 2015, in which it received substantially less votes than before, were rigged against it.
Cheddi Jagan returned from studies in the United States to a British Guiana in 1943 that was a cauldron of poverty. The report of the Moyne Commission, which investigated poverty in the region in the 1930s concluded that “for the laboring population, mere subsistence was increasingly problematic.” The report was so explosive that it was not published until 1945. It weighed heavily in subsequent developments. In 1946 Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, the latter two of whom were active trade unionists, formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). In 1947 Cheddi Jagan fought and won a seat in the Legislative Council.
The cauldron of poverty was being stirred by decades of intensified industrial unrest, prompted by the new found strength of organised labour. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was the first to be registered in the British Empire in 1922. The Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) was registered in 1937 and represented sugar workers. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) was established in 1938 and superseded the BGLU as the largest and most militant in the city. In 1947 bauxite workers went on strike. In 1948 the successful Teare Strike led by the TWU, stopped the trains and boats and closed down the country for two weeks – unprecedented in a colony. In 1949 the Enmore strike of sugar workers took place during which five sugar workers, who became known as the Enmore Martyrs, were shot and killed. This heightened labour activity was also a feature in the Caribbean region and was prompted by a decline in sugar prices on the world market which further exacerbated poverty.
The basis of Guyana’s political outcomes has remained static for many decades. With deeply entrenched ethnic voting patterns, Indian Guyanese, originally constituting close to 50 percent of the population, would always have the upper hand. The two elections in 1957 and 1961 demonstrated to the African Guyanese political leadership that if it wanted political power, it would have to obtain it in coalition and later sustain it through electoral malpractice. And so, after the 1964 elections, in which the PPP obtained the plurality, the PNC and UF, together holding a majority of the seats in the parliament, formed a coalition government. The coalition ended in 1968 and the PNC resorted to electoral malpractice thereafter to maintain political power.
In 1957 the PNC merged with the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP, led by John Carter, a prominent lawyer of Mixed heritage, represented the interests of the Mixed and African middle and professional classes. At some point between 1973 and 1985 the support of these groups for the PNC started to wane. But it mostly returned with the election of Desmond Hoyte as President. These groups showed their electoral clout in 2006 when a section of it abandoned the PNC and supported the AFC. Many of these votes went back to the PNC after the election of David Granger as its leader, but it is believed that a significant number remained with the AFC. At the 2011 elections the APNU obtained 40.81 percent of the votes, much in line with its record in free and fair elections, and the AFC got 10.32. The AFC benefited from the loss of between 5 to 7 percent of its votes from previous elections. It obtained 48.60 percent.
Bharrat Jagdeo’s incumbency as General Secretary of the PPP and Opposition Leader makes him the most authoritative figure within the PPP. The ease with which he swatted away the dominant influence of Donald Ramotar, Clement Rohee and Komal Chand in serious decision-making within the upper reaches of the PPP after the loss of the 2015 elections, testifies to his now enduring control of the direction of the PPP, last manifested when he secured the nomination of Donald Ramotar as the presidential candidate in 2011.
Komal Chand had always been a vocal and independent minded leader within the PPP. This was derived more from his inclinations than from the power base he held as General Secretary of GAWU. The need for restructuring of the sugar industry arose at around the time of Mr. Jagdeo’s accession to office in 1999. Mr. Chand’s positions in debate, particularly in relation to the sugar industry, became more pointed and vocal as time went on, especially during the 2006 to 2011 period when serious problems began to surface. But the problems which have been emerging in the sugar industry and the length of time for which Mr. Chand has held leadership office in GAWU – since about 1985 – have weakened his grip. Thus, he lost his position as a member of the executive committee of the PPP after the 2016 congress of the PPP. Composition of this body is determined by a select few a day or two before the vote and a sufficient number of members of the central committee, which elects the executive committee, are given the word as to who to support. Mr. Chand’s orchestrated loss would have told him that his time in the leadership of the PPP and GAWU was drawing to an end.