By Tristan Mohabir
As Guyana prepares for its upcoming parliamentary elections, tensions between its two major political parties ride high. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), bitter adversaries since their inception in the 1950s, are the main contenders for the presidency, with the majority party’s presidential candidate assuming office. Guyana, a small nation of fewer than 800,000 people, is a former British colony and South America’s lone English-speaking country.[i] The ramifications of British colonial influence have played a significant role in the development of the country’s turbulent post-independence political profile. Racial tensions often have ignited widespread riots and violence, and citizens are increasingly voting along strictly ethnic lines. To better understand the contemporary nature of Guyanese politics, it is worth examining how the nation arrived at its current state.
The Land of Many Waters
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the native Carib and Arawak peoples named the land Guiana, which means “land of many waters.” The Dutch colonized the territory in the 16th century, but the British assumed control in 1796, and in 1815 the Dutch formally ceded Guiana to England.[ii] Recognizing the fertility of the land, the British quickly set about cultivating sugarcane on plantations, and importing Africans as slaves. The practice was abolished in 1834 but persisted until 1838, when freed Africans settled in urban areas. Facing labor shortages on the plantations, the British contracted poorly paid Indians as indentured servants, setting the precedent for rural Indo-Guyanese settlement and later urban Afro-Guyanese consolidation. Today, 43 percent of the Guyanese population is of East-Indian origin, 30 percent is of African origin, 17 percent is mixed, and 9 percent is Amerindian.[iii]
In 1953, Great Britain authored a new constitution for British Guiana that set the country on the path toward self-governance. In the 1953 elections, the People’s Progressive Party secured an overwhelming victory, winning 18 of 24 parliamentary seats. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese educated in dentistry in the United States, founded the PPP in 1950.[iv] Linden Forbes Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese lawyer educated in London, joined the party shortly thereafter and became party chairman, giving the colony some hope for a racially united future.
However, Jagan, his American wife Janet and Burnham were unabashedly leftist, and adopted a Marxist position to combat the effects of colonialism in British Guiana. In October 1953, the British suspended the new constitution and landed troops, claiming that the PPP was attempting to turn the colony into a communist state. This seizure set in motion the fracturing of the PPP, as Burnham began to seek sole leadership of the party.[v]
In 1955, Jagan and Burnham formed separate wings of the PPP, with Jagan’s wing moving further left and Burnham’s further right. Burnham, in another bid to secure supremacy, used his position as chairman to convene a congress in Georgetown, the capital, where most of his support lay. After Burnham was declared leader, Jagan supporters walked out in protest, claiming that the move was unconstitutional.[vi] Burnham went on to split with the PPP, and merged his wing of the party with the United Democratic Party to form the People’s National Congress. The PNC appealed mainly to Afro-Guyanese for support while the PPP retained its Indo-Guyanese base. This lead to a phenomenon known as apan jhat, a Hindi phrase used to describe the race-based voting that still characterizes the country’s elections to this day.[vii]
Clash of the Political Titans
The British again staged elections in 1957 and 1961, both of which the Jagan-led PPP won, with 48 percent and 43 percent of the vote, respectively.[viii] Jagan became First Premier and stridently revealed his political independence. Directly thumbing his nose at the U.S. and the UK, he adopted a communist platform, rejected the U.S. embargo on Cuba and supported the nationalization of foreign holdings in Guyana’s sugar industry. The country’s Afro-Guyanese population perceived the PPP not only as pro-Indian, but also as anti-African. These ethnic divisions sparked labor unrest and riots throughout the country from 1961-1964, thereby eliminating any possibility of reconciliation between Jagan and Burnham.[ix]
At a constitutional conference in 1963, the British government agreed to grant Guyana its independence, but along with the Kennedy administration, would not allow the Marxist Jagan to lead the country through its political transition. While Britain was publicly supportive of talks between Jagan and Burnham, it only agreed to hold new elections if proportional representation supplanted the first-past-the-post system, fathoming that the former method would prevent the PPP from gaining a parliamentary majority and subsequently increase the influence of the PNC.[x]
In the 1964 elections, the PPP won 46 percent of the vote, the PNC 40 percent and the United Force (TUF) 12 percent. TUF, a conservative party, gave its support to the PNC, effectively preventing the PPP from assuming power and installing Forbes Burnham as Prime Minister, much to the relief of the United States and Britain.[xi] Guyana subsequently achieved its independence in May 1966 under Burnham’s rule.
The PNC in Power
Following his rise to power, Burnham ruled in an increasingly autocratic fashion, and PNC and the state became indistinguishable from one another. Electoral fraud, suppression of civil liberties, political assassinations and government intimidation became commonplace. Burnham’s handling of the economy also resulted in mass emigration of skilled workers from the country, economic underdevelopment and a decline in overall quality of life. The elections of 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 were largely perceived by the international community to be rigged. In 1980, Burnham passed a new constitution that changed his title from Prime Minister to Executive President, giving him powers comparable to those of the governor of the former colonial territory.[xii] Meanwhile, Cheddi Jagan served as minority leader in parliament, confirming his role as the most ethical figure in the country at the time.
During the 1980 elections, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a fast-growing party that sought to bridge the racial divide in the country, refused to participate in a process it saw as fraudulent, and the PNC claimed 41 seats in parliament compared to just 10 for the PPP.[xiii] That same year, Walter Rodney, the distinguished scholar and leader of the WPA, was assassinated by a bomb in his car. Agents of Burnham are widely suspected to have murdered Rodney in an attempt to fatally injure the WPA, as it represented a growing threat to the PNC.
While undergoing throat surgery in 1985, Burnham unexpectedly died, allowing then Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte to assume the presidency. Gradually, and under mounting international pressure, Hoyte moved Guyana away from Burnham’s crippling racial policies, shifting from one-party rule and state socialism to a market economy and freedom of the press. The delayed 1992 elections, the first to be recognized as free and fair since 1964, were overseen by 100 international observers, including a team led by former U.S President Jimmy Carter.[xiv] Cheddi Jagan was elected president, finally able to govern the country that he had steered toward independence decades earlier.
The Return of the Jagans
After his election, Jagan moderated his socialist rhetoric and policies and pursued free market economics. Breaking from his Cold War policy of non-alignment, he became more pro-Western. Still, Jagan pressed against social injustice, envisioning a world in which the international powers would increase support to underdeveloped nations. When Jagan died in 1997, Prime Minister Sam Hinds acceded to the presidency and appointed Janet Jagan as his replacement.
Janet Jagan was elected president in the 1997 elections, in which the PPP won a 55 percent majority.[xv] Mrs. Jagan, who always had been deeply involved in Guyana’s politics, was the country’s first female prime minister, vice president and president. Following the elections, widespread demonstrations spearheaded by the PNC led to the drafting of a new constitution and new elections within three years. Mrs. Jagan resigned in 1999 due to poor health and essentially handpicked her successor, former Finance Minister and Prime Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, who won the 2001 elections and was re-elected in 2006.
President Jagdeo, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, will be leaving a mixed legacy behind him. On the economic front, Guyana is growing quickly. The country’s GDP growth is expected to be 4.5 percent in 2011 and 4.0 percent in 2012, up from 3.6 percent in 2010.[xvi] Despite such relatively robust growth, Guyana has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the Caribbean, at only USD 2,629.28 in 2009.[xvii] Political transparency is also weak. According to Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, Guyana scores a 2.7 out of 10, one of the lowest ratings in the Caribbean and South America.[xviii]
The PPP also has been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption. For example, in the multi-million dollar “Polar Beer Scam,” beer was smuggled into the country and then passed off as soda so as to avoid higher tariffs. The Guyana Revenue Authority was thought to be complicit in the crime, but all 72 charges leveled against 15 of its employees were eventually dropped.[xix] Yet another major problem facing the country is that of “brain drain,” or skilled workers leaving; over 70 percent of Guyanese with tertiary educations leave the country, usually heading for the United States and Britain.[xx]
As the Latin America Monitor observes, “President Bharrat Jagdeo’s sound macroeconomic management and astute diplomacy are boosting Guyana’s prominence…[but the country still suffers from] structural issues ranging from wide ethnic divisions to a relatively weak constitutional framework.”[xxi] Thus, while Jagdeo has presided over various improvements, most notably economic growth, his administration has been marred by corruption and inefficiency.
The Usual Suspects
With elections expected to be held by mid-October, the PPP and PNC will again be the main contenders. As the PPP draws its support largely from the Indo-Guyanese population, rural rice farmers and sugar workers will comprise a large portion of the party’s defenders. The PNC, meanwhile, has its base in urban in areas such as Georgetown, the capital. The largest challenge facing the PPP is that for the first time in its history, the party will not have the face of a Jagan—the nation’s uncontested royal family—behind it, although its candidates will surely invoke the spirit of that lordly family.
The PPP’s presidential candidate is Donald Ramotar, the current General Secretary of the party and an economist by training. Ramotar has represented the party abroad on numerous occasions, at times accompanying President Jagdeo. Originally the frontrunner for the PPP nomination, which is determined by secret ballot among the central committee’s 35 members, Ramotar was granted a de facto victory after his three rival candidates withdrew. His nomination further added to speculation that he is Jagdeo’s candidate of choice and drew accusations of political manipulation from the PPP’s opposition.[xxii] Ramotar has said that his administration would be one of continuity, and while offering no specifics, he advocates an export-oriented economic policy, investment in alternative energy sources, education reform and improved public security.[xxiii]
The PNC’s candidate is David Granger, former Brigadier and commander of the Guyana Defence Force, the country’s military. Granger holds a Bachelor’s Degree in history and a Master’s in political science and was a Hubert Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland. He narrowly won his party’s nomination by garnering 279 delegate votes, beating out Carl Greenidge, who secured 264.[xxiv] Granger’s main concerns are improving public security, reforming the education system, economic development and fostering a sense of national unity that would alleviate the country’s pervasive racial strife. He also supports constitutional reform that would make the prime minister the head of government and the reintroduction of a non-militarized national service.[xxv]
The soft-spoken Granger, who is quick to distinguish himself from career politicians, seeks to tackle education reform by providing increased funding through taxation for the University of Guyana and raising teachers’ salaries and incentives so as to induce them to remain in the country. To attract investment, Granger seeks to set up a Department of the Diaspora, which would allow expatriates to return and become integrated without encountering superfluous red tape. He also supports microcredit financing to spur small business growth.[xxvi]
If apan jhat continues, it is difficult to envision the PPP losing the elections. Not only does the party benefit from high voter turnout, but it has also strengthened its support among Amerindians by committing resources to infrastructural development in their communities. Additionally, incumbency grants the party the advantage of being able to undertake new or delayed projects in communities where it seeks to fortify its political standing. Yet another advantage the PPP enjoys is the support of some 50,000 to 60,000 sugar and rice factory workers, who might be disinclined to retract their support for the party that historically has backed them.[xxvii]
Despite these advantages, the PPP will likely encounter much stiffer electoral resistance than it has in previous years. Granger will not be running solely under the banner of the PNC, but rather will represent a coalition of opposition parties, including Walter Rodney’s WPA, deemed A Partnership for National Unity.[xxviii] The primary challenge facing the party is retaining its Afro-Guyanese support while also articulating policies that will attract a number of crossover Indo-Guyanese votes. The wild card that could swing the race is the Alliance for Change (AFC), the second-largest opposition party after the PNC. According to Granger campaign worker Derrick Lawrence, “we can’t have a discussion on politics and ignore the AFC,” as he claims the party receives about 20 percent of the opposition vote.[xxix] That number, however, may be rapidly growing.
Khemraj Ramjattan, former president of the Guyana Bar Association and the AFC’s presidential candidate, has stated that the party will align with neither the PPP nor the PNC in order to stay true to its bipartisan and nonracial tenets.[xxx] Furthermore, even if the AFC joins the opposition party, there is no guarantee that the former would have a voice in the coalition government. Additionally, the AFC leader believes that maintaining this independence will win the support of disaffected PPP and PNC supporters. Ramjattan, who was expelled from the PPP in 2004 for denouncing its corruption and its leftist ideological position, formed the AFC with former PNC member Raphael Trotman in 2005.[xxxi] Ramjattan has worked closely with both the PPP and PNC, but regards “both as equal evils because of race-based politics,” reflective of his commitment to racial harmony.[xxxii]
The AFC aims to bridge Guyana’s racial divide and bring back government transparency. To discourage the development of a maximalist leader, Ramjattan has promised that should the AFC win the government, he and prime ministerial candidate Sheila Holder would switch positions midway through his term.[xxxiii] To spur investment, he proposes reducing corporate taxes and establishing a state development bank to manage and provide capital to prospective businessmen. Ramjattan’s plan to address crime in Guyana centers around renewing offers from the UK to have Scotland Yard train Guyanese policemen and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to help combat narco-trafficking in the country. Despite the AFC’s solid, progressive platform and Ramjattan’s own belief that “[the party] has every chance to win the government,” what remains to be seen is whether the Guyanese electorate will have the pluck to break with the country’s traditional power brokers, the PPP and PNC.[xxxiv]
As the elections draw near, each party is becoming more forceful in its call to action. President Jagdeo recently implicated Granger in the PNC political intimidation of the 1970s, while Granger, echoing Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, has stressed the need to break away from one-party rule in search of change. Regardless of who wins the elections, the next Guyanese president must focus on changing the same old story—managing the tide of racial division in the Land of Many Waters.
References for this article can be found here.