By Dr. Tara Singh
Guyana is famous for the Kaieteur Falls. The discovery of oil in commercial quantity has earned it another distinction. The emergence of small political parties is also trying to ascend to that pinnacle. There exists a national fervor for some Guyanese leaders to elevate politics to a higher level, while most Guyanese have also become immersed in local politics as never before.
The discovery of oil seems to play a huge role in this political renaissance, but the country’s changing demographic situation (Indians 39%, Africans 29%, Mixed 20%, Amerindians 11%) has also neutralized the dominance of any one party. Thus, the opportunity arises for other political parties to join the political competition. If voting preferences are still aligned to race, it seems that none of the major parties, at least theoretically, could obtain 50% of the votes. The small political parties, therefore, view themselves as having a unique opportunity to serve as ‘power broker.’
Some critics are extremely skeptical and do not think that emerging smaller parties will do well at the 2020 forthcoming general and regional elections. They readily cite the case of the AFC (Alliance for Change) which had made similar claims of pro-people centered, anti-corruption, pro-democracy, pro-investment, pro-race tolerance, pro-constitution, and pro-job creation development, but have instead altered their course radically once they became part of the governing apparatus. These critics also secure reinforcement of their position from an almost similar performance of the UF (United Force) in the 1960s.
Critics note that the AFC launched itself onto the political landscape with great zeal and made an impressive showing at the 2011 polls, getting 7 seats. When the AFC coalesced with APNU (A Partnership for National Unity) and went into the 2015 polls, they got 8 seats. The goodwill was still there, and their (AFC) supporters and others were looking forward to their leaders delivering on their promises. However, once they occupied governmental office, the AFC quickly abandoned their supporters as well as their lofty promises and colluded with the PNC to inflict unbearable pain onto segments of the community.
The AFC had promised, for example, to pay rice farmers $(G)9000 per bag of paddy and also to increase sugar workers’ wages by 20%, but within the first year in office, they joined with their main partner, the PNCR to fire 7000 sugar workers and cut rice farmers loose saying that rice is not government’s business. PM Moses Nagamootoo said at that time that the sugar workers were raiding the public treasury.
The initial euphoria associated with APNU-AFC 2015 victory quickly dissipated as the PNC/R, the dominant coalition partner, consolidated its own grip on power and correspondingly marginalized the influence of AFC, to such an extent that AFC has been struggling to maintain its existence and identity outside of APNU. The PNCR struck another blow to the AFC when the PNC/R asked AFC to contest the 2018 LGE (Local Government Elections) as a separate entity. The AFC support base was shattered. Its electoral support dropped dramatically by 76.4%. It did not win even one local authority area. Could the voters recover from the AFC’s betrayal?
Well, a few analysts like Bill Ramnarace and Freddie Kissoon, think that if the smaller parties (ANUG, FED UP, JLP, Change Guyana, URP, Citizens’ Initiative) combine before elections, they could become the Kingmaker. These analysts reckon that collectively the smaller parties can muster votes to get 3 seats which would be enough to allow them to function as the power broker. These analysts don’t believe that either the PPP/C or the PNCR coalition will be able to secure 33 seats to form the next government. They also state that if these smaller parties run separately, they would literally be wiped out. Freddie says that the only party that could get a seat or two if it runs separately is the Justice and Liberal Party (JLP) because it has, as its base, the Amerindian community which accounts for about 10% of all the voters. Others are not that optimistic since they claim that the JLP Leader Lenox Shuman has hurt his party’s chances by engaging in talks with the PNCR on the possibility of joining the APNU outfit. This position of smaller parties becoming Kingmaker also implies that neither the PPP nor the PNC has any base support within the Amerindian communities! Obviously, this is not correct. Both major parties have Amerindian members in leadership positions that have the capacity to rally their people.
Furthermore, these analysts assume that the elections will be fair and free. Given the track record of the PNCR, hardly any right- thinking person believes that the 2020 elections would be fair and free. Pollster Vishnu Bisram says that Guyanese are expressing a real fear that the 2020 elections will be rigged. The logical question is: “will the electorate decide how many seats the small or major parties get or will the PNC’s aligned GECOM determine the number of seats?” The PPP has been fighting relentless to ensure a clean voters’ list, as part of its fair and free election campaign. If the smaller parties are interested in constitutional reform, they must also recognize that the right to vote (one person, one vote) at free and fair election is a fundamental constitutional right, for which they must demonstrate their passion and agitation.
According to some analysts: “If the smaller political parties can act as a check on the two major political parties that could result in a better Guyana for all.” However, the massive question is this: “which politician can anyone trust?” This is a fundamental failing of the Guyanese political system where trust recedes in the face of political expediency and opportunism. All the new political parties boldly assert that they have the vision and the plan to make Guyana a prosperous country. All of them have elevated constitutional reform/change as their top priority. The AFC also had this as their top priority in their 2015 manifesto. But once in power, the AFC realized that the existing constitution which is ambiguous in many sections could work to their advantage, and even allow them to exercise autocratic power. The AFC fully supported Granger’s unilateral appointment of James Patterson as Chair of GECOM despite knowing that it violated he Price-Carter formula. The damage caused by AFC to the Guyanese psyche is immeasurable.
People are asking: “why should Guyanese push for constitutional reform when the governing coalition is not adhering to the provisions of the existing constitution?” Why would anyone think that with constitutional reform/change, the governing party will adhere to it? If the PNC constitutes the government, for example, there is every likelihood that they will flout any modified/revised constitution and they can get away with it because they also control the disciplined forces. If there is need for constitutional reform/change, therefore, this must be accompanied with changes in the structure and organization of the disciplined forces, including remedying the race imbalance.
The launch of Change Guyana on Tuesday October 29, 2019 appears very impressive. Both their Presidential candidate Robert Badal and their Prime Ministerial Candidate Nigel Hinds spoke of their plans for development. They produced a long list of activities and projects that are not too dissimilar from those of other political parties. They claim that they will elaborate on their development program at their weekly press conferences. It seems that the Change Guyana’s central unit of economic development will be the family. How they will put this concept of family centered development into reality will be interesting.
Robert Badal extols the virtues of incentives as a necessary tool of economic development. His team will work to incentivize Guyanese in various sectors such as businesses, teaching and nursing. Nigel Hinds says that they will offer duty free concessions to teachers and nurses. Nigel indicates that they will re-negotiate all oil contracts. Change Guyana will accord a central role in the development process to the business sector, which they regard as the engine of growth. Badal mentioned about the frequent interruption of power supplies and how it adversely affects households and investments. He did not say, when he was the Chairman of the Guyana Power and Light, Inc, why they couldn’t mitigate or even eliminate the power outages. Change Guyana missed an important opportunity to advocate immediate assistance to the victims of floods on the East Coast and West Coast Berbice.
AFC Chairman Raphael Trotman observes in relation to the launch of Change Guyana: “All I can say is that I wish them well. Launching a new party in a highly polarized environment is not going to be easy. It wasn’t easy for us in the AFC in 2005, and the political landscape has certainly become more complex and difficult since.”
How is the Change Guyana different from the other small parties? Answers to this question will emerge as they begin their political campaign, as well as, with the production of their manifesto. The good thing for Change Guyana is that their leadership, like that of other small political parties, was never in government before, so one cannot question them on past performance. Such vices like corruption, nepotism, racism, and mismanagement will therefore not haunt their campaign. But this does not relieve them of a heavy burden to prove to skeptical voters that they are credible and could offer better solutions than the two major parties.