It was on October 9, 1953, 66 years ago last week, that the Conservative British Government of Winston Churchill suspended what was known as British Guiana’s Waddington Constitution. It did so by passing an Order in Council which it enforced by sending to British Guiana an invasion army of 700 British troops. The intention was not merely to ensure that the 133-day old Government left office. It was to smash the democratic opening that British Guiana had achieved by destroying the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) which had spearheaded the campaign for universal adult suffrage with the ultimate objective of ending colonial rule. The PPP was democratic socialist, progressive, militant, impatient and intent on eliminating the intense poverty that gripped the majority of the Guianese people. The British Government had been persuaded by local reactionary forces that had travelled to London after the April elections in which the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats, that the PPP represented the forces represented the existential threat of ‘international communism.’
The Waddington Constitution that the British Government suspended had granted universal adult suffrage to British Guiana for the first time, eliminating property qualifications. It also allowed a modest measure of democratic rule by permitting an elected Legislative Council and a Cabinet comprising Ministers appointed by the party commanding the majority of votes. The PPP formed that Government, which had little authority, having to defer to the Executive Council of unelected officials headed by the British Governor. This did not stop the PPP Government from immediately setting about to alleviate the atrocious conditions of workers.
October 5, 1992, the date of the return to democracy after a quarter of a century, promised not only a new era of democracy, but of winner-does-not-take-all politics. The first half of the equation has been largely achieved, though still on shaky ground. The second half, recognized as essential for political stability and economic and social progress, has been all but been abandoned. And it has spawned the political instability that now prevails.
Without an overarching and inspiring political direction, for most Guyanese, the choice for March 2 is already made. In accordance with long standing tradition, rooted in the ethno-political dimensions of our politics, most Guyanese will vote for either the PPP/C or the APNU+AFC. While Guyana has special historical circumstances which determine the bases of the political choices made by the vast majority of voters, in most democratic countries, in and out of the Caribbean, the choices are also between two main political parties, but ideologically, between social democratic/liberal and conservative. Similar circumstances exist in most of the Caribbean although distinguishing their ideological orientation is sometimes difficult.
The Guyana Government’s lawful tenure in office came to an end on September 18. The no confidence motion was passed pursuant to article 106 of the Constitution on December 21 and should have resulted in elections by March 21. However, court proceedings placed a ‘pause’ on events and time began to run again on June 18 when the CCJ ruled against the Government. The CCJ gave the clear indication, but did not rule, that elections are due by September 18. Nothing prevented the CCJ from formally ruling, which the lawyers representing the appellants, who had brought the case against the Government, had sought. The result is that the Government has quite duplicitously argued that the CCJ did not rule, the Constitution has not been violated and the Government has de jure and de facto power. From whence this lawful power has been derived has not been explained in any sensible or rational way.
I am deeply conscious of, and have written extensively on, the ethno-political fears that influence Guyana’s politics. I have, and so have many others, repeatedly urged our main political parties to discuss the proposals which they themselves have placed on the political agenda and come to an agreement on how political responsibility can be shared between them equally so that neither can feel at risk of being dominated by the other. The reason the APNU+AFC’s promises of constitutional reform failed to materialize is that it realized that its own proposals would put it in an inferior power position to the PPP. In order to arrive at a political solution, the parties have to accept equality of representation. And it is the PPP that would have to make that concession or sacrifice because of its superior numbers. APNU+AFC has the historical injustice of slavery as an argument to counter that of superior numbers.
At the last two hearings of the cases before the CCJ, the clear preference was expressed by the Court for a political resolution of the NCM (no confidence motion) case. The Court, like everyone else, is fully cognizant of the political implications of any consequential order, especially having regard to the disputes over the voters’ list. At the last sitting of the Court, the President, Justice Adrian Saunders, expressed exasperation that the parties did not even meet, much less have discussions on the way forward. The Court is obviously anxious that what appears to be an explosively political matter should have a political solution which would satisfy all parties, rather than orders by the Court which may satisfy no one or only one. At the time of writing the President and Leader of the Opposition have not met.
The legal challenges by APNU+AFC initially appeared to be only a play for time. It was successful because the Government has obtained several additional months of life. More time is expected but even more is being demanded. A new voters’ list by house to house registration is demanded on the basis of vastly exaggerated and unproved claims about alleged defects in the list. These claims are that the list is bloated by 200,000 names and 18-year olds are not registered. This is the same list that was used for the recent local government (LGE) elections and there were no complaints. 18-year olds were extracted from the national register which registers persons from the age of 14 for the list used for the LGE. The same will apply for the voters list for new elections. Claims and Objections (C&O) will take care of any omissions. The latest play for time is that the list will not be ready until December 25. Both the 1990 and 1997 house to house registration took approximately eighteen months. On the evidence of the past, therefore, once house to house registration starts, there will be no elections until the end of 2020, if then.
To the sounds of Buju Banton and the echoes of the Wismar and Sun Chapman massacres, Guyana celebrates it 53rdIndependence Anniversary. Our political and economic future are as uncertain as they were 53 years ago. Guyana’s emergence from authoritarian rule in 1992 was not only a major landmark in its post-Independence history. The promises at the time were of “the dawn of a new era” and of “winner does not take all” politics. in the midst of economic reforms that promised a better life and the emergence of this newspaper that presaged freedom of expression, anticipation was high. After 27 years, half of our life as an Independent nation, hopes have been dashed. Our people have been kept in thrall to the logic of ethno-politics. No one now believes that either the APNU+AFC coalition or the PPP/C, by themselves, whichever is returned to office, has any intention of allowing this nation to unshackle the chains of domination politics.
Guyana’s political scene is thankfully uncomplicated by the ideological and political divisions sweeping many countries today, causing uncertainty and concern. But we do not live on an island and international developments do influence our views. This newspaper in its editorial yesterday high–lightedthe drift to “Europe’s illiberal future” in its editorial. The USA has already gone that way under Trump, who equated neo-fascists with anti-fascists, saying that there are good people on both sides. Australia’s right wing government has been unexpectedly returned to office. Boris Johnson, Trump’s buddy in the UK, Boris Johnson, may win the leadership of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, a neo-fascist outfit, is expected to win the UK-European Union elections. While these developments do not directly affect us, we cannot wholly eliminate potentially negative influences. They can lead todevelopments here by encouraging a hard line against the compromises that may be necessary to effect changes.