By Dr. Odeen Ishmael*
Guyana witnessed a change in administration after the ruling People’s Progressive Party-Civic (PPP) lost by a mere one percent of the votes to an alliance of opposition parties comprising A Partnership for National Unity and the Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) in the general elections held on May 11. The retired army Brigadier David Granger, leader of the alliance, was elected as the new president while the grouping, with 50.3 percent of the votes, acquired 33 seats in the 65-seat National Assembly. The PPP-C obtained 49.2 percent of the votes and was allocated the remaining 32 seats.
Background to the elections
Back in 2011, the PPP-C won the general elections with a plurality of nearly 48 percent of the votes. The opposition parties, APNU—a coalition of the People’s National Congress (PNC), the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and four other mini parties—and the AFC, which had contested separately, together actually garnered a majority of 33 seats with 52 percent of the votes, but since Guyana’s constitution does not allow for post-election coalitions, the PPP-C formed a minority government under the presidency of Donald Ramotar.
However, the government faced continuous opposition from the APNU and the AFC which slashed the annual budgets and opposed funding for major development projects on the grounds that they were not viable and that contracts were awarded in a non-transparent manner. Also opposed was the anti-money-laundering measure, the passage of which was required by the international community to prevent financial sanctions from being leveled against Guyana. Then in late 2014, the opposition, using its majority in the assembly, signaled its intention to move a vote of no-confidence against the government which would have forced its resignation and the holding of new elections. To offset this, President Ramotar prorogued the National Assembly for a period of six months, but in January of this year he announced May 11 as the date for general elections.
As the parties prepared for the election campaign, APNU and AFC formed an alliance in February and named David Granger (of APNU) and Moses Nagamootoo (of AFC) as its presidential and prime ministerial candidates respectively. Before Nagamootoo joined the AFC back in 2011, he was a popular long-serving executive member of the PPP who left the leadership after accusing the government of encouraging corruption. He himself had vied in 2011 to be chosen as the PPP’s presidential candidate but lost out after the party’s central committee selected Donald Ramotar as its candidate.
The elections campaign
The 2015 elections campaign, as was the case in previous occasions, saw a revitalization of the support bases of the two main contesting parties and huge rallies were held in their respective strongholds. By and large, the citizens of Indian descent (comprising 43 percent of Guyanese) along with the indigenous Amerindians (9 percent) maintained their support for the PPP while those of African descent (34 percent) and mixed ethnicity remained solidly in support for the opposition alliance. However, the AFC insisted that it had garnered support from sections of the Indo-Guyanese population, thus eroding what the PPP believed would be an expected majority at the polls. This claim cannot be clearly verified, but what was evident was that in eastern Berbice, a region with a significant majority of Indo-Guyanese, the voter turn-out was relatively low. One reason postulated for this was that those who abstained did so because they were disillusioned with the PPP, while at the same time, they had no liking for the opposition alliance, particularly the APNU, which they saw as the old dictatorial PNC with a new name and noted for rigging elections from 1968 to 1985.
An interesting aspect of the campaign was the accusation leveled by the APNU+AFC on the PPP that the latter had moved away from the ideals of its founder, Cheddi Jagan. This claim, made by Nagamootoo after he departed from the PPP in 2011, was intensified as the campaign progressed and the alliance actually began promoting itself as the group promoting Jagan’s ideals of national unity and good governance.
Allegations of fraud
When the official results were finally announced on May 16, the PPP leadership accused the Guyana Elections Commission of rigging the ballot and made varying demands for a recount of the votes. It even claimed that the international observers—all of whom declared the elections free and fair—colluded with the commission to facilitate the rigging since they did not observe the actual counting, an essential part of the electoral process. The commission refused the PPP’s request for a total recount which could have settled the issue and eliminated all suspicions of irregularity. For the PPP a recount was deemed most necessary especially when the results showed that it lost in one administrative region by a single vote and nationally by less than 5,000 votes; and also since the chief elections officer admitted that many fake statements of polling results were submitted to the commission by some of its returning officers.
In light of these developments, Ramotar refused to concede and continued to insist that the PPP had won the elections even after Granger was declared as the new president. The PPP’s acrimony was vividly demonstrated when Ramotar, as the outgoing president, refused to attend Granger’s inauguration ceremony later that afternoon.
But the accusation of rigging, which is now echoed by many rank and file PPP supporters, should be examined for what it is worth. Protest demonstrations outside the elections commission’s central and regional offices have occurred and it is also expected that the party would move to the high court with an election petition that will call for a total recount of the ballot. Certainly, if it feels that it won a majority based on the numbers shown on its copies of the statements relating to the results at the polls. It should publish those to buttress its case with the Guyanese populace. So far, the elections commission itself has not officially published the elections results in the Official Gazette; this should have been done since May 26, as required by the national electoral laws.
The counter-argument to the allegation of fraud is why would any rigging allow the alliance to barely scrape a win by only one percent? And if there were some degree of rigging, how did the PPP manage to win seven of the ten administrative regions—one more than it did before—in the regional elections held simultaneously as the general elections?
But it was apparent that there was division in the PPP camp. At least one minister in the PPP administration stated his agreement with the official results and said that they indicated the need for a national unity government; while some others on May 15 relinquished their offices and issued farewell messages to their staff soon after the preliminary results indicated a PPP defeat. The day before, in a well-publicized message to the PPP leadership, this writer had urged it to issue a “concession” statement and urged Ramotar to demonstrate political leadership by meeting with Granger to express working cooperation with the incoming administration [inewsguyana.com, May 15, 2015].
What is to be done
Whatever the outcome of any election petition, the PPP must conduct a surgical analysis as to why it did not win the majority. While criticizing the conduct of the elections may seem to be a popular action to whip up political support, self-criticism must take center stage.
What must now be done? Clearly, there must be the injection of “new blood,” as former PM Sam Hinds recently stated, to become part of the party’s leadership [Guyana Times, May 19, 2015]. The PPP should take the example shown by the British Labor Party after its recent electoral trouncing when its leader decided to resign. The PPP leadership has persons who have been there since the last two decades of the twentieth century, and the time is now opportune for them to step back and allow the younger ranks, who no doubt have fresher ideas, to move to the fore. Most of the current leadership, from as far back as 1992, became government bureaucrats and this proved in the long run to be a detriment of the conduct of the political work of the party in the towns and villages since they came to see themselves more as state officials rather than party functionaries. Over a long period of time, such type of leadership bred arrogance which propagated a feeling of apathy and disillusionment among its traditional supporters and negated efforts to win political support from those regarded as the “cross-over” voters.
Such feeling existed during the 2011 elections. As can be recalled, when the party failed to win an overall majority in 2011, the leadership, in analyzing the root causes, pledged to consult with its members and supporters at the community level to obtain their views as to what went wrong. Apparently, this activity was not approached with firm seriousness, since much of the same reasons for the electoral failure repeated themselves on May 11.
As expected, it will be highly necessary to pay heed to its supporters at the grass-root level. Despite advances in economic and infrastructural development, there were constant complaints that the ruling party had failed to rein in the corruption which permeated through various sectors of the society. There were also accusations from various directions that some of its leaders were tainted by corruption, even though such accusations were generally based on “perception.” However, the perception of corruption leaves an indelible mark even if unproven and not dealing adequately with these charges, the PPP was not able to pull any significant political support from “cross-over” voters.
Ideological and organizational weaknesses
In addition, the PPP will have to re-examine the stance of its own ideology. Perhaps, one of the charges that held resonance was that the party over the past fifteen years gradually shifted away from the ideals of its founder, Cheddi Jagan, who had championed the socialist cause and close association with the rural and urban poor, the working class and the peasantry, as well as , clean and transparent governance. Actually, during an address to a May Day rally to trade union members closely associated with the party, Ramotar was loudly heckled by sections of the audience who felt that his government was not doing enough to improve the lot of the working people. And, significantly, over the past decade there were numerous strikes for better working conditions by sugar workers, traditional supporters of the PPP, in the state-owned sugar industry.
Added to this was the issue of security. While this remained as a serious bugbear during the PPP administration, the weakness in the party’s own security situation was evident on May 11 when it failed to effectively protect its own election “command center” in eastern Georgetown. Party officials also claimed that some of its election agents at polling stations were thoroughly intimidated and even physically assaulted by opposition supporters, forcing them to abandon their posts. This obviously exposed a glaring weakness in the party’s training and selection methodology, and clearly exposed that some persons it appointed to work at the polling stations in opposition strongholds were not prepared to properly carry out their duties.
The PPP, now must use its time as the opposition party to restructure, reorganize and rebuild itself. When it controlled the government, especially since 2001, it neglected the development of some of the party’s vital organs to reform. Its congress, due to be held every three years, was postponed or delayed at times, as were its regional and district conferences—all of which were much anticipated fixtures in the years the party was out of government. These had greatly placed the party in steady contact with its membership and grass-root supporters whose interests it represented with zeal and courage.
In the reorganization process, the leadership must realize that times have changed and that the party must adapt to new circumstances. It is no longer a “Marxist-Leninist” party, as it regarded itself in the pre-1992 period, since it has in the past two decades embraced capitalist development of the economy, even though it continued to emphasize social development. Therefore, it must move away from its archaic “Marxist-Leninist” superstructure by having its members elect a “leader,” and not a “general secretary” chosen by a closed group of central committee members. However, such changes can only be changed by the general membership, so it may be necessary for a special congress to be held for this purpose. Total democracy must be implemented if the party intends to remain as an attractive option to the electorate. Significantly, similar proposals were made before and the proponents were castigated by the power players in the party as proponents of “anti-party” activities.
The PPP must now move back closer to its power base—the rural and urban poor, the working class and small farmers. At the same time, it is essential to practice open democracy. Clearly, the concept of “democratic centralism” consisting of freedom of discussion with the expression of opposing opinions has not really been exercised within the PPP for a while. The views and dictat of a “supreme” leader or a particular group should not be allowed to hold sway over the membership of the entire party.
What is the political option open to the PPP now that it has lost executive power after twenty-three years in office? Obviously, it can function as a strong opposition, but it must be constructively critical in its approach. Clearly, it remains a formidable force with its support from half the population. In such a situation, it can approach the governing alliance with a proposal for a national government. Actually, President Granger at his swearing-in ceremony, stated that he would be a president for all Guyanese, saying: “I extend the arm of friendship to former President Donald Ramotar and the members of the PPP to join this great movement of national unity.”[Guyana Chronicle, May 17, 2015] Whatever this means in practical terms hopefully it will be spelled out by Granger; however the PPP on May 19 dismissed this call as “deceptive” and continued to insist that it won the elections. Up to June 10, the party had not named its thirty-two parliamentary representatives; and in the meantime, it announced that it would boycott the opening session of the new parliament. These actions may prove to be detrimental to the PPP since growing numbers of its own supporters have been expressing on social networks that they want the party leadership to display leadership and to support actively the drive for national unity. They, no doubt, join the growing majority of Guyanese who yearn for such an achievement, and the PPP is now presented with an opportune moment to demonstrate its willingness to work in this direction.
Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired) of Guyana, historian and author, is a long-standing member of the PPP. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.