Opposition admits voters ‘disenchanted’
—PPP claims popularity ‘never been so high
While the ruling party is maintaining its cool about its support ahead of next year’s elections, opposition parties admit that they are contending with “disenchantment” among prospective voters who they hope will cast their ballots for change.
Recently, PPP General Secretary Donald Ramotar said that the popularity of the ruling party and the government has “never been so high.” He told Stabroek News that turnout is always a concern among political parties. However, when asked whether the PPP is worried about lower voter turnout after the drop in numbers at the last elections, he said there was nothing to suggest it had reached an alarming proportion.
The decline in voter turnout at the last general and regional elections followed high numbers at the two previous polls. Of the 492,369 registered electors in 2006, there were 338,839 votes cast (336,375 of which were valid), accounting for a turnout of 68.82%. There were 440,185 registered electors in 2001 and 403,919 votes cast (395,855 of which were valid), representing a turnout of 91.76%. There was a similarly high turnout among the 461,415 electors in 1997, when 408,003 votes were cast (396,266 of which were valid), pegging turnout at 88.42%.
Although the PPP/C made a gain in parliamentary seats, it actually lost nearly 25,000 votes from 2001 after the count, including a lower turnout in its Region 6 stronghold. “We are not unduly worried about what happened,” Ramotar said, while suggesting that making Election Day a public holiday may have contributed to the lower turnout: “We can’t call it a trend.” According to him, a high turnout is important since it would give the government greater legitimacy. He further added that with good election campaigns, there would likely be higher numbers at the next poll. “Clearly, if you look at the media, there is no political apathy,” he said.
In addition to the public holiday, other factors believed to have contributed to the lower turnout include the joint opposition call for no election without a verification of the voters’ roll—which they argued was hugely inflated in the absence of a new national house-to-house registration at the time—emigration and a disinterest among the electorate. The African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA) had also urged African-Guyanese to boycott the polls.
Among the opposition, the PNCR-1G recorded almost 50,000 less votes than the PNCR polled in 2001; while the AFC, in its first election showing, managed over 28,000 votes. There has been speculation that the next election will see a further loss for the PNCR and possible gains for the AFC, which has sought to position itself as a viable alternative to both the ruling party and the main opposition.
With the AFC only having been in existence for a few months prior to the last election, AFC Vice-Chairperson Sheila Holder emphasised that the party did not have an opportunity to demonstrate its principles to the electorate. However, she admitted that the fact that “people stayed away from the polls” cannot be ignored, whether it was a result of either apathy or emigration. “It might be both but in the various regions, people give us a sense that they are turned off,” she said. “We have a lot of people expressing disenchantment about the political situation.”
The “disenchantment” with the politics, Holder said, is rooted in the embracing of racial politics. As a result, she said people need to see themselves as being part of the problem and part of the solution. In this vein, she said her party has been trying to engage as many people on a “one-on-one” level, to educate them about the need for their involvement in the political process and particularly the power of the vote. “[People] can change the process by voting wisely and not empowering the political status quo,” she said. “Accountability in politics requires their participation— to not only vote but to hold the party they voted for accountable after elections. They need to stay engaged and have their voices heard.”
Holder also said she did not think any other opposition party has been doing the work that the AFC has, noting that its engagement with communities has been prompting subsequent ministerial follow-up. She said she was recently told by a PPP/C MP that he was going to be travelling to the hinterland in order to undo some of the “mischief” caused by the AFC. “We have been travelling this country far and wide and giving people the encouragement that all is not lost and that they have a role to play to turn things around in the country,” Holder said. “We don’t have the sure ethnic vote like the PPP and the PNC. We have to work to get new votes and that is what we are working on.”
She added that the party is paying significant attention to PPP/C strongholds, where she noted that alternative information sources to the state media are unavailable.
Mobilising voters is crucial to the success of the opposition parties unseating the PPP/C administration, WPA executive Professor David Hinds has said and he has warned against the parties waiting until election season to begin to talk with voters. “There is a lot of voter apathy out there and I think that is one of the things that the opposition has to take into consideration if it is going to go forward with a joint slate,” he said.
Hinds is of the view that people have lost faith in the formal political process, which goes on outside of their daily experiences. “A lot of what goes on in parliament does not address the issues that you face every day,” he said. “And political parties are no longer going out into the fields and talking to the people, so there is a massive disconnect. And you go at election time and you ask people for their vote and they are not mobilised and they are not enthusiastic because you haven’t been there, you haven’t gone down on the ground and dealt with their own problems.”
Hinds noted that he has been going into African-Guyanese communities recently where there is a recognisable disconnection from national politics. “I’ve been asking people about the next elections—especially young people—and they are almost totally disinterested,” he said, adding, “They express frustration with the government. They express discontent with what is going on [in] their own lives but they don’t see election [as] a solution to the problem. It’s almost as if they have lost faith in the process.”
Additionally, he said there is a linkage between illiteracy and voter registration. Persons who have conducted voter registration particularly in the poorer communities, he noted, have found that people are shying away from the process because they are unable to read and write properly.
He said the opposition has to find a way to address illiteracy, in order to ensure people are registered.
Hinds recently said that the prospective joint opposition alliance needs to “broaden its perspective away from a narrow electoral arrangement,” explaining that an engagement is essential with the people in all communities. The aim, according to him, should be to address fundamental societal issues like poverty, public security, including the roles of the police force and the army as well as the influence of the narco-trade on politics and race. “Electorally, you are going to be successful if you deal with people’s issues… as a result of mobilising them around the issues,” he said. “Once you engage with people’s issues you can then go to a man and say, ‘Well, you have aired your issues, we have dealt with your issues, we got to change it and one of the ways you go about changing it is that you got to be able to register and be able to vote…’” Hinds added.
The PNCR, WPA, GAP and the NFA have all committed themselves towards formalising a broad coalition to contest the polls. The opposition efforts could face a hurdle in its efforts to mobilise support if ACDA repeats its call for a boycott of the polls by African-Guyanese.
‘The racial game’
In April this year, ACDA said that no election should be held without constitutional reform for shared governance. Its statement was prompted by PNCR leader Robert Corbin’s announcement that he would not be his party’s presidential candidate for the elections. ACDA said citizens should not waste their energy or be sidetracked by the debate on a candidate, which it called a non-issue since it has not changed the fundamentals of the political engagements that entraps African Guyanese. It cautioned “all Afro-Guyanese not to be misled or further betrayed by the idea that a combined opposition with a new ‘messiah leader’ will make Guyana better.
ACDA Executive Eric Phillips was unable to speak on behalf of the organisation, which is currently engaged in month-long activities to observe the Emancipation anniversary. However, in his private capacity he told Stabroek News that race will remain the fundamental issue at the next election. “It’s not about issues, it’s not about the economy, it’s going to be about race because the PPP has to win,” he said. “There are so many issues that they can’t afford to lose.”
The last five years have proven ACDA’s position that going to the polls “would not change anything for anyone,” Phillips, however, said, while emphasising that although the ruling party received more than 50% of the votes cast, 31% of the electors did not vote. “When you look at the demographics of Guyana [it] essentially could mean that it had only Indian votes,” he said. “If you look at the analysis properly, the 40% of the database at the time would have been over 200,000 voters [and] the PPP got less than 200,000 votes.”
He blamed apathy for the lower turnout and in particular the poll that projected that the AFC was ahead of the PNC for discouraging some voters. He nevertheless believes that the “hope for change” would see a higher turnout at the next election. “All people are fed up. Whether you are a PPP supporter or a PNC supporter, you need change. Guyana needs change,” he said, while noting that he believes that in addition to the political parties there will be more forces at work to stimulate turnout. “People want change and they are going to make judgements about who to vote for and we would—ACDA would influence that one way or the other, because we understand a lot more of the dynamics than some of our people.”
However, the prevailing view remains that a government of national unity in which all political parties and civil society participates would be in the best interest of the country, Phillips said, explaining that ACDA’s posture has not changed. “How we achieve it might be different but our posture hasn’t changed,” he noted. “People will go and exercise their vote. We haven’t decided yet what we are going to do. But we will be very clear when we speak to the African communities about deceptions.”
All political parties and national actors, he added, should be part of a government of national unity because the country needs healing as well as an economic strategy that is inclusive. He warned that although there is attrition, ethnic voting would continue. “There’s a lot of talk about migration and bad governance and corruption will lead to less votes for the PPP as was shown in the last election,” he explained, “But come election time it is very clear that the racial element will be played to….”
Neither the PPP nor the PNC has been able to govern the country properly while the AFC, he added, is an irrelevant part of the process because it can never win a Westminster election. “Regardless of what they do they can’t overcome the PPP or the PNC and history is not on their side if you look at any third party in any Westminster model, their ability to win an election is zero; it has never happened.”
Hinds was sympathetic to ACDA’s arguments against going to the polls. “That is why what I am arguing is a collapsing of that position with an electoral position, which is saying that you struggle for constitutional reform even as you prepare for elections. So your election is just a part of the strategy. It’s one leg.
The other leg is constitutional reform. Your other leg is social reform. And so, therefore, you walk on different [legs].” He added that these various interests could be pursued by one broad movement However, Holder was critical. “I don’t understand how intelligent people make such an unintelligent call,” she said. “How are you going to get a government that clearly demonstrated it has no interest in sharing power to share power while it is in power? It is an absurdity! And it exposes the laziness of those people to get off their posterior ends and to educate the people.”
Holder said while groups complain about ethnic issues, they refuse to do the work needed to change the situation. “We live in a world of change,” she said. “This too will change. The demographics have changed…. A significant number of the dominant race has reduced and the mixed race has increased exponentially.”
The potential threat of violence posed by the situation in the country, Phillips countered, can only be averted through a shared governance solution. With reference to possible violence he said “…you see it in the villages; you see it in the hopelessness of our youth; you see it in our underdevelopment; you see it in rampant crime; the police and the army, which are the second and third largest forces in this country after the PPP, are corrupted; [and] you see it in illiteracy. And when you have that mix of underdevelopment, poverty and racial angst, you are going to have violence…” He disagreed with the argument that the growth of the mixed-race population would see any changes in the results.
Phillips added that the Westminster system would never be good for Guyana, no matter who is in power, since there would be a cycle of racial tension and perceived and real marginalisation, resulting in turmoil in the society. In addition to the electoral system, ethnic parties, ethnic enclaves, a budgeting and procurement system that nurtures and promotes racial discrimination as well as illiteracy among significant sections of the population all combine to militate against change, he argued. “I’m practical,” he said, “To say what the AFC is saying that over time you will change people’s minds… it’s stupid for anyone to believe that if the PPP feels it needs to do this to win that it wouldn’t use the race card.”