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Expectations for the 2011 National Elections in Guyana

By Harry Thakur Hergash

Guyana Journal, August 2010

National elections in Guyana are due in just over a year. By that time the ruling party would have been in government for four consecutive terms totaling nineteen years. While it may be a bit early to make predictions, this article looks at the state of readiness of the major parties and their prospects of gaining power.

The governing PPP will be going to the polls with three potential vulnerabilities. First and foremost is the fact that, for the first time in its history, this party will not be the beneficiary of the wisdom and visibility of either of its two most powerful founders, Dr. Cheddi Jagan or his wife Mrs. Janet Jagan. This physical absence means there will be a tremendous void in its armory even though the names of the Jagans will be invoked on all occasions to give legitimacy for a fifth term in government.

Secondly, since the constitution does not allow a third term for President Jagdeo, barring a sudden, unexpected compromise with the PNC, a new and untested candidate is likely to be heading the party's list as its nominee for President in the next elections. So far, at least four candidates are known to be interested in this position. Internal competition is likely to be fierce, some candidates may suffer bruised ego, and, without one of the Jagans to give legitimacy to the successful candidate, divisions in the ranks may soon filter down to the grassroots causing disenchantment, apathy, and a low voter turnout.

And thirdly, the party has a record to defend. On the positive side, its efforts on the economy, environment, social services and infrastructural works have been commended. Credible international bodies such as the World Bank and the United Nations have given it a favorable rating in the areas of economics and the environment, respectively. Former Guyanese radio personality in the late 1960s, now an independent consultant, Sir Ronald Sanders, in an article in the June 13, 2010 edition of the Kaieteur News, writes: “the new President (after the 2011 elections) will also inherit from Bharrat Jagdeo's stewardship a country whose economic situation and social services are better than they have been for three decades. Housing, medical facilities and education have all dramatically improved under Jagdeo, as has its infrastructural development particularly water distribution. An economic basket case for 25 years since 1976, Guyana has moved from being a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HPIC) with little or no economic growth to steady growth today. In 2009, Guyana recorded 3.3 per cent growth while the majority of its CARICOM neighbors showed negative growth; public debt fell from 93.1 percent of GDP as of end-2006 to 56.8 percent of GDP in 2009.” And the recently conducted poll by the Caribbean Development Researches Inc. (CADRES), despite the now reported under representation of likely PPP supporters in its sample, has found that infrastructure is a major strength of the Government.

However, the handling of citizens' safety and security, in addition to issues of alleged corruption, governance and human rights have left much to be desired. After nineteen consecutive years at the helm, failures in these areas cannot be easily blamed on the previous PNC's twenty-eight years in government. Home invasions, armed robberies, murders and banditry continue unabated across the country. At the same time, while the record of crime solving by police is dismal, claims of police brutality are mounting and making headlines on a regular basis.

The most recent is the shooting death of a high school student at Patentia, preceded a few months earlier by the torture and setting ablaze of the genital area of another teenager while in custody at the Leonora Police station. It is not insignificant that Guyana's human rights record and police brutality in particular was questioned by countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom in May of this year at a United Nations Human Rights Council's Working Group meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

And in the area of fighting corruption, one finds it hard to reconcile Government's talk with lack of action against those in high places. The Polar Bear scam and others show the double standards, and how justice is meted out to the foot soldiers as opposed to those who are well connected. In reflecting on the writings of PPP founder Dr. Cheddi Jagan, one cannot help but wonder how much his legacy has been tainted by his political inheritors and how this will ultimately affect the party's future prospects. In his autobiographical work, The West on Trial, he wrote of his stint in prison in 1954: “Prompted by me, the prisoners asked the prison authorities to grant me permission to give an address…. I concluded my talk by stating that the biggest thieves were outside of the gaol.” The apparent shift away from the values of its founder leader, if not addressed by its next Presidential candidate, may have long term consequences for this party, especially if the major opposition parties can get their houses in order.

On the other hand, the PPP has a track record of winning at the polls. It is very good at getting out its base supporters to vote. As well, over the years in government, it has gained support among Amerindians by investing heavily in infrastructural work in their communities and by giving high profile ministerial positions to individuals of Amerindian heritage. Incumbency also has its benefits. This is not unique to Guyana. Being in office gives a governing party access to state resources and there is often a thin line separating government business from party business when an election is nearing. Financial resources can be directed to long delayed or new projects in communities where the governing party is seeking to influence voters, and easy access to state controlled media provides it with greater opportunities to get its message across.

The major opposition party, the PNC, is remembered not so much for its accomplishments in Government but for all that was wrong during its years in office, including rigging of elections. It has not been able to recover from its loss in 1992 and its last two leadership contests were very contentious with accusations of malpractices in its handling of these. Senior party officials have also been accused of pandering to elements that consider the party as an African Guyanese party. Some prominent former leadership candidates have been sidelined or have left, the party is significantly weakened, its supporters demoralized and, based on its recent difficulties in meeting its tax obligation to the city of Georgetown, its coffers may be low.

The PNC is still a major force in Guyanese politics and in the short term it has the potential to recover grounds lost to the AFC. By abandoning street protests and saving itself from accusations of responsibility for violence and looting in the city, it has created an opportunity supportive of genuine efforts to woo Indian Guyanese to its fold in its attempt to rebuild and rebrand. This will be a long term makeover requiring patience, the right leadership, sound policies and a genuine commitment to inclusiveness, and not likely to bear fruits at the next elections. However, if it is able to avoid further self-inflicted wounds and stay the erosion of its credibility, it could see the end of its descent and the beginning of a new era in Guyanese history. This extended period of calm may have also influenced the major aid-donor countries to take greater interest in Guyana's system of governance and its human rights record and to express their concerns at the UN Human Rights Council Working Group meeting in Geneva, as noted earlier. Their action should be seen as encouraging signs. However, the challenge for the PNC is to be able to look beyond the elections of 2011 and to keep its support base motivated.

The AFC is a relative newcomer, arriving on the scene just before the 2006 elections with one of its two founders coming from the PNC and the other from the PPP. It was intended to be a new movement to attract young people and voters across the racial divide, and to break the stranglehold of the two major parties on their respective racial constituencies. However, analyses conducted after the elections have indicated that this party succeeded mainly in attracting African Guyanese votes away from the PNC. In addition, the party suffered a credibility problem for many soon after the elections, when it backpedalled on a reported commitment to allocate a parliamentary seat to its Secretary, an Indian Guyanese, causing her to leave in a storm of controversy.

Unfortunately, the fate of third parties in most countries is not encouraging. They are usually squeezed between the major parties that are on either side of the right-left political spectrum or, as in the case of Guyana, stranded in the middle of the ethnic divide between two major race groups, or caught between opposing religious elements. Occasionally however, as is currently the case in Britain, a third party can hold the balance of power when neither major party gains an outright majority.

The dilemma facing the AFC as it prepares for the next election is similar to that of the PNC, i.e., how to strike a balance between its efforts to retain its existing support of mainly African Guyanese and take action or enunciate policies to attract Indian Guyanese. So far it has not convincingly demonstrated that it can. In fact, about a month ago, race calculus seems to have caused an impasse that had the potential of splitting the Party over its founding commitment of rotation of incumbents in the positions of Party Leader and Party Chairman. The rumor mill became active with speculations of the imminent departure of Mr. Ramjattan whose turn it was to be Party Leader. After weeks of uncertainty, a truce seems to have been worked out. However, this matter is likely to resurface when delegates meet later in the year to endorse the Party's Presidential and Prime Ministerial candidates for the 2011 elections. A Stabroek News report of June 28, 2010, notes: “There has been strong disagreement within the party over the retention of the rotation principle and about whether Ramjattan would be endorsed as the presidential candidate for next year's election in the light of support for Trotman as candidate by some quarters.” In any case, irrespective of what decision is made in this regard, this recent development has once again called into question the credibility of the AFC's leadership and may have diminished the Party's chances of winning over Indian Guyanese. As well, Mr. Ramjattan's leadership of efforts to have an international commission look into the alleged killings in Guyana by convicted drug lord Roger Khan has been derided by many Indian Guyanese, who believe that Khan was more effective than the security forces in confronting the post Mash Day jail-break violence against their community by so-called “freedom fighters”. Consequently, this may not help the AFC in winning Indian votes in some quarters.

The minor parties do not merit much attention, as each on its own is too insignificant to have an impact. Also, there have been speculations about a coming together of the opposition parties to field a joint candidate to oppose the governing party in 2011, a prospect that at this time does not seem likely. Such an attempt for the last elections proved futile and earlier this year the blame game played out in the press. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that rancour, resentment and oversized egos among the key players will subside to make such an initiative workable.

To date the opposition parties have been telling Guyanese about the wrongdoings and ills of the PPP in government. Unfortunately, they have not been enunciating their vision for the country and how they plan to achieve it. Their strategy seems more geared to turn voters away from the PPP rather than giving voters reasons for voting them in office. The rice and the sugar industries, for example, provide employment for a large number of PPP supporters, likely a total of around fifty or sixty thousand. These people are not likely to turn their backs on the PPP for another party that does not demonstrate to them, by way of an alternative approach, how they would be able to feed their families in case they are inclined to make a switch. In fact, their recollection is that both the rice and the sugar industries faltered when the PPP was not in government and consequently the old adage of “once bitten twice shy” applies.

Likewise the issue of safety and security are of concern to all Guyanese but Indian Guyanese have some specific fears since they tend to dominate the retailing industry as shopkeepers, bar owners, petrol station operators, etc., and these business places are the usual target of armed robberies which, in many cases, are accompanied by maiming and murder. Again, the opposition parties have not outlined their plans for ending this scourge. Pointing to the incompetence of the Government without offering an alternative solution is not likely to win converts. In fact, the major opposition parties have allowed themselves to be seen or portrayed as being more on the side of the perpetrators than the victims of crimes.

So, where do we go from here? I believe the governing PPP is likely to be returned with a majority. In my view, whether it will gain an overall majority to allow it to govern on its own or a case of its needing a junior partner will depend on the two major opposition parties. Instead of seeing race as the motivation for PPP voters, the opposition parties need to start thinking of peoples' self interest and focus on addressing these. They need to understand, if I may paraphrase German philosopher Karl Marx, that “people must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before they can pursue politics, religion, philosophy and so on”, or understand American psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that shows food, clothing, sleep, shelter and security as primary needs that must be fulfilled in order to motivate people. It should not be surprising that despite its sampling flaws, the CADRES poll has identified the cost of living, unemployment and crime as the major concerns of the Guyanese electorate. These are the real concerns of the people and what is significant, but seems lost on the Opposition parties, is the CADRES finding that “a disproportionate number of PPP/Civic supporters believed that their party has a superior ability to grow the economy and the supporters of other small parties believe that the PPP/Civic also has some capacity to fight crime”.

The great pity of all this is that neither the ruling PPP nor any of the opposition parties seems to be concerned with or considering the emptiness of these periodic elections. This electoral process, for the foreseeable future, is unlikely to provide each ethnic group the security and/or perception of security that is rightfully theirs. In October 1963, as a teenager and member of the first batch of students of the University of Guyana, I sat in the auditorium of Queen's College in Georgetown and listened to Professor Lancelot Hogben, Vice Chancellor of the newly established university, as he remarked in his inaugural address: “If peoples of different territorial ancestry cannot live at peace in British Guiana, how gloomy is the prospect for mankind! …. Because we are, though small, a multiracial community, it may be that we can make a unique contribution to civic education in what we may hope to be the Age of Plenty only if peoples of different color, creed and country can coexist peacefully.” Guyana today is no less divided than it was in 1963. Is it not time to have a more inclusive form of government to weather the uncharted waters of the international arena, a government that reflects the unique history of all its people?

Mr. Hergash was among the first batch of students of the University of Guyana where he pursued a B.Sc. in Biology. Whilst a student at UG, he taught at the Annandale Government Secondary. After graduating, he worked with Bookers Sugar Estates, now GUYSUCO, then lectured at the University of Guyana. He has lived in Canada since 1974 where he studied Business Administration, and worked at the senior level in the Ontario Public Service. Harry is also a founder and president of the University of Guyana Guild of Graduates in Toronto, Canada, and has been very involved in its highly successful annual functions. He was instrumental in the publication of the book “The University of Guyana – Perspectives on the Early History” that documents the history of the UG from the perspective of Professors H. Drayton, A. Earp and D. Irvine, the three critical players in the early years.

Editor's personal note: Mr. Hergash and I were contemporary Biology students at UG in 1963, and we have maintained good contact over the years.

(This article also appeared in the Stabroek News in two parts, July 05 and July 12 2010.)