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.
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.