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.
There has been much discussion about the number of small parties which have announced their intention to contest the elections due on March 2, 2020. The formation of small parties at election time is not unusual in Guyana. Prior to 2001, before the amendment of the laws to provide for constituencies, many small parties contested elections. The requirement at that time was merely to provide a list of 65 nominees for the National Assembly, supported by 300 registered voters.
The Guyana Constitution provides that if the National Assembly decides, half of its seats can be contested by the first past the post system, providing that the other half of the seats is distributed to the parties that have contested the elections in such a way as to ensure that the seats that they receive are in direct proportion to the votes obtained. The Constitution Reform Commission of 1999-2001, having this constitutional provision in mind, recommended that the electoral system be reformed to provide for an element of first past the post.
The impeachment inquiry now going on in the US House of Representatives, and televised daily, is as gripping as any psychological thriller. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Psycho comes to mind. In the midst of the evidence of Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine, who was described by President Trump, in a telephone call to President Zelensky of the Ukraine, as ‘bad news,’ President Trump tweeted: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started out in Somalia. How did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavourably about her in my second phone call to him…”
Ms. Yovanovitch was prematurely dismissed as Ambassador, at the instigation of Rudy Guilani, President Trump’s lawyer, because she was seen as an obstacle to the President persuading President Zelensky declaring an investigation of former Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden and the Ukranian company, Burisma, of which he was a director, for corruption so as to assist President Trump’s re-election campaign. The tweet, hotly debated in the US as witness tampering, was not only shocking to lawyers and politicians alike, but revealed character traits of President Trump (“insecurity as an imposter” as described as Speaker Nancy Pelosi) that have been debated in the US media since his election as President.
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.”