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.
If one of the two main political groups in Guyana, the Peoples’ Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) or the A Partnership For National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) achieves an absolute majority at the March 2 general elections, one half of the population will feel alienated. This alienation has been the signal feature of Guyana’s politics since 1957. It has grown progressively worse since then, aggravated by and/or resulting in Guyana’s history of electoral manipulation, discrimination, and criminal and civil violence since 1962.
To eliminate this albatross, Guyana needs a political system where the main political parties alternate in power every two terms, or one where the two political parties share power equally. Since the former is difficult to constitutionally structure under a system of free, but adversarial, elections, the latter appears to be the only route out of a political dilemma which has emerged from the existence in Guyana of two large ethnic blocs that manifest their insecurities in fixed electoral choices.
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.
Jaded by the PPP/C’s 23 years in office, many were elated at the coalition between the APNU and AFC because it offered the real possibility of ending the PPP/C’s long incumbency. APNU/PNCR had traditionally polled 40 to 42 percent of the vote and the AFC had obtained the support of 10 percent of the electorate in 2011. The Cummingsburg Accord, signed on February 14, 2018, and expiring on February 14, 2020, gave the AFC the Prime Ministership, 40 percent of the ministries and 12 seats, about 40 percent as it turned out, in the National Assembly. Discussions for a renewal of the Cummingsburg Accord prior to the March 2, 2020, general elections are not going well. Between the beginning stages, of the failure to find a creative interpretation of the Constitution to enable the Prime Minister to chair the Cabinet and, at the ending stages, the inability of the parties to agree on a formula for the division of spoils at the 2018 local government elections, and everything in between, it was anticipated that the coalition had challenges.
Soon after the formation of the Government in May 2015, dissatisfaction began to be expressed from within APNU that the AFC had been given an overgenerous portion of the coalition, about 40 percent, in National Assembly seats and in the Cabinet. Triumphalism and an unnatural confidence, born of an unnatural electoral history, that APNU can retain political power indefinitely without the AFC, led to the grumbling within APNU that the AFC had ‘got too much,’ that the Cummingsburg Accord was skewed in its favour. APNU failed to understand that it had to pay not merely for the coalition but also for the victory that the coalition would bring. Therefore, the 10 percent that the AFC was expected to bring to the coalition was worth the 40 percent price that APNU had to pay in order to dislodge the PPP/C and attain victory at the elections after 23 years of PPP/C rule.
As Guyana’s political season enters its beginning stages, a plethora of new political parties are coming forward to present their programmes to the electorate, seeking its support. While new parties emerging near to election time is not a new phenomenon, the numbers of new entrants to the political scene so far are unprecedented. Yesterday’s news suggest that another party, in addition to the Liberty and Justice Party (LJP), A New and United Guyana (ANUG) and The Citizens Initiative (TCI), and led by two prominent personalities, Messrs. Robert Badall and Nigel Hinds, is likely to be announced later this week. There is at least one other group organizing and preparing to launch a political party.
The immediate factor which may be responsible for the number of new political parties coming on stream at this time is probably the collapse of the Alliance For Change (AFC) which declined from 10 percent support in the 2011 general elections to 4 percent in the local government elections in 2018, and may have lost some more support since then. These new political parties could not have failed to observe that there is a pool of at least 6 percent of the electorate who may be looking for a political home. It is possible that the potential of attracting this support has been partially responsible for the number of new political parties being introduced to the electorate. It would not have been lost on these new parties that political support of the core Guyanese electorate has long been concretized by ethnic cleavages. Some are relying on the substantial youth vote on the basis that the youth are less motivated by ethnic considerations and more by matters of principle and policy.