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.
The vast and increasing incidence of corruption, occurring under both major political parties but denied by both of them, despite the findings of Transparency International and the Inter-American Development Bank, have been an issue of great concern to the persons comprising small parties. The failure of both parties to advance creative policies to eliminate corruption has been a great disappointment. The small parties are horrified that the same level of corruption will be allowed to persist, as is clearly the intention of the main political parties, during this era when Guyana’s income will increase exponentially with the oil economy. It is feared by the supporters of small parties that corruption will intensify and Guyana’s oil resources will be dissipated by waste and corruption.
Because of Guyana’s proportionately large youth population, several small parties have emerged with youth leaderships and promoting policies to benefit youth. The two large parties have paid lip service to youth in the past, even as the AFC had inspired many youth. But neither the PPP nor APNU+AFC can point to any material benefits and structural policies they have put in place to benefit youth. There have been some expansion of education and the availability of a larger number of overseas scholarships. But by and large, youth unemployment and lack of opportunities remain serious problems and this has inspired at least two small parties to focus significantly on youth issues.
The major issue in Guyana’s politics is the conscious or unconscious struggle by the major political parties for ethnic dominance. This struggle permeates the core of major parties reflecting the fault lines of our society. The lessons of the early years on the PPP, which recognized this issue, and structured the PPP to take account of it, has been lost or ignored. The reason that several small parties are advocating constitutional reform is to address this serious problem that is fundamental to Guyana’s future. Unless this complex problem is resolved, Guyana’s toxic politics, characterized by gridlock, will continue indefinitely and the small parties recognize this.
These issues will be placed before the Guyanese with various degrees of intensity over the coming weeks, depending on the resources that small parties they have available to campaign. The traditional view is that small parties are usually squeezed out by the large parties. This may be so historically but the AFC recently broke through as a result of dissatisfaction with the large parties. It could well be that with the important issues facing the electorate at these elections, one of more of the small parties can have a break out moment. That will once again transform Guyana’s politics, as the emergence of the AFC did, except that on this occasion it is hoped that at least one change will be a new governance structure involving the major parties.