The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, issued an invitation to President Granger to debate race, in the context of which political party in government has done more for African Guyanese. The immediate issue was the rejection by the casting vote of the Chairman of the Elections Commission of Vishnu Persaud as Deputy Chief Elections Officer, which the Leader of the Opposition described as ‘unfair.’ The issue spawned accusations and counter accusations of racial discrimination.
The KN reported on Mr’ Jagdeo’s challenge as follows: “I am prepared to debate race relations and which party has contributed to worsening race relations in Guyana. I can talk to him (President Granger) about this fallacy and the myth that they keep perpetuating that they have done more for Afro-Guyanese than the PPP…” He stated that he is prepared to match the record of the People’s National Congress between 1964 and 1992, and then from 2015 to present as against the PPP’s 23 years in office… According to Jagdeo, the debate can be on several grounds, including employment practices, access to wealth, land and businesses… “I am sure that you will see a pattern with Afro-Guyanese having fared better in that period under the PPP than ever under the PNC rule. I am prepared to debate that openly.”
When I read the headlines in SN yesterday morning, ‘AFC says constitutional reform still a priority,’ I could not feel a sense of elation. Instead, I sunk into a dejected mood of déjà vu. The headline itself subtly editorialized that it was not impressed with the promise. It added to the main banner ‘though no progress over three years.’ I believe that the AFC earnestly wishes to have constitutional reform but is faced with implacable resistance in the form of inactivity by APNU.
But more importantly, constitutional reform for the AFC, as well as for APNU, whenever it desultorily renews its fading undertaking, no longer seems to mean what it promised in the coalition’s manifesto. By omitting to refer to the manifesto promises, it appears that constitutional reform is being treated as a box to tick before the next elections comes along. It can then boast of fulfilling its election promise.
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.
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.
As expected, the events at Babu John attracted wide attention and media coverage. A front page photograph in SN of President Ramotar belting out Bob Marley’s ‘Let’s Get Together’ was in striking contrast to the accusation by Dr. Bharat Jagdeo that during the 2011 elections, the Opposition APNU had sent drummers around calling on their supporters to ‘let’s get the coolies out,’ or words to that effect. Observers heard these two discordant notes, one a plea for unity in song, the other a divisive rant, and several others this past week.
The accusation against the PNCR created a storm and at press appearances, Dr. Jagdeo sought to defend his remarks. The PPP’s complaint is that it is treated unfairly. The media, it claims, focuses on the PPP and ignores the PNC’s historic appeal to racism. The fact is that when either political party appeals to its supporters to vote for its party, in whatever language, it is an appeal that is alleged to be directed to one ethnic group. In Guyana the appeal can easily appear to be overtly ethnic or be interpreted as such. It is the PPP that has borne the burden of these accusations. But if the PPP is guilty, so is APNU. Both parties have relied on, and sought to ensure at every elections, its solid bloc of ethnic support, while publicly encouraging cross over voting.