Prior to the announcement of the date for local government elections, there was speculation, particularly in Opposition circles, that the Government would find reasons not to hold the elections. It was believed that the Government had performed so badly that it would suffer significant losses and would not want to expose its flank, now that general elections are only two years away. The announcement in July by the Minister of Communities, Mr. Ronald Bulkan, that local government elections will be held on November 12 killed that speculation. The more significant news came later. It was reported that APNU and the AFC could not agree on a joint slate for the elections and would be going to the electorate separately. The long term viability of the coalition was put on the table. But observers welcomed the opportunity that it would give some indication of the relative strengths of the political parties, not by the number of seats they win, because of the element of the first past the post system in the elections, but by the number of votes that they obtain. Caution would have to be exercised in such assessments because of the expected low turnout, unless polls are conducted to determine the percentage turnout of supporters of each of the three contesting parties. Polls such as these complicated and are not conducted in Guyana.
The campaign has not met with great public enthusiasm. The coalition has suffered criticism from a poor economy, reports of corruption and bad governance for the Auditor General’s Report and the absence of President Granger, who has been receiving medical attention in Cuba over the past two weeks. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, known as a dynamic election campaigner while in the PPP, has had to concentrate in rejuvenating the flagging fortunes of the AFC, which has been receiving very small attendances at its public meetings. It might well be that these factors will result in an especially low turnout of the governing parties’ supporters and will suppress their overall results. PNC/PNCR/APNU supporters have traditionally stayed away from the polls since the 1979 Referendum when wishing to express their disapproval.
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.
There are frequent, frustrated, refrains from observers that it is Guyana’s political parties that are mainly responsible for promoting the culture of ethnic dominance and without it, Guyana’s politics would not be dominated by race and instability. This is not true. Guyana’s main political parties reflect the social, economic and political aspirations of the people of Guyana. The fundamental feature of Guyana which determines these aspirations is its ethnic composition and history. This has been characterized mainly by separate struggles against employers and the colonial state for survival. The lesson that has been learnt is that whoever controls the state controls the distribution of its limited resources. The struggle for control of the state was a natural outcome of the nature of our main political parties and their fundamental, though unspoken political objective – ethno-political dominance.
By the time the first popular political party, the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), emerged, it was recognized that ethno-political dominance, which had already reared its head after the second world war, was a negative phenomenon that will hinder Guyana’s political development and its main objective of Independence from Britain. The PPP was therefore organized with a multi-ethnic, multi-class, leadership. It attracted widespread support. However, as is well known, colonialist intrigues and internal opportunism led to what was in effect a departure of the “moderate” faction of the PPP. That faction later became the African led Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) which got its support mainly from the African Guyanese workers and farmers. Its merger shortly after with the United Democratic Party (UDP) brought support from mixed Guyanese and African middle class. Indian Guyanese gave their support to the PPP.
In the critical years of the 1970s and 1980s, three major issues engaged the attention of my political colleagues – restore democracy, advance social progress and avoid civil strife. We firmly believed that Guyana could make no progress unless full democracy through free and fair elections were restored. Our analysis was that it was the lack of internal democracy that was responsible for what we then saw as the failure of the economic reforms in the 1970s and 1980s to lead to economic and social progress. The PPP saw this and gave a lifeline to the PNC more than once. The most notable was the National Patriotic Front under which, after free and fair elections, the largest political party would take the prime ministership and the second largest the executive presidency. The PNC would not hear of it. Even if democracy had not been restored in 1992, developments in the world would have ensured that by today we would have been living in a democratic Guyana.
The victory of democracy in 1992 has resulted in substantial economic and social progress for Guyana. But this progress gave rise to other problems. The incipient problems of corruption and lack of transparency and accountability exploded, with little effort to resolve them. Also, the intractable issue of ethno-political domination was put aside because of the unremitting, and sometimes violent opposition of the PNC, as well as some degree of triumphalism within the PPP. Attempts to work through and resolve differences between the PPP government and Desmond Hoyte and later Robert Corbin failed. The PPP government was mainly responsible. When the real opportunity of embracing unity presented itself in 2011, the PPP did not even consider forming a coalition with APNU. The reticence today of both parties in embracing constitutional reform which would diminish the impact of ethno-politics is the next hurdle the Guyanese people have to overcome.
October 5 will forever be remembered in the history of Guyana as the date when a short-lived democracy was restored. Our freedom was obtained on May 26, 1966. The period of formal democracy lasted from 1966, until 1968 when it was crushed by rigged elections.
The rigging of the 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 elections have been fully documented elsewhere. But the entire gamut of manipulative techniques was employed. Laws were passed that removed all but the formal powers of the Elections Commission and handed over the management of the elections to the Chief Elections Office. The free press was destroyed and Parliament unrepresentative. But opposition to the rigging of elections never subsided.