The PPP and the challenges ahead

By Ralph Ramkarran

The election result and its aftermath

Four successive election victories of the Peoples Progressive Party (the Party) in 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2006 were followed by the failure to obtain an absolute majority in 2011. It was unexpected and a shock and disappointment. Under the constitution the Party was entitled to the presidency and the president could appoint ministers from among members of the National Assembly, except for technocrats. The President opted for ministers from only the PPP, leading to a minority, rather than a coalition, majority supported government.

Some attempts have been made to consult with the opposition by way of a tripartite committee. In other respects, such as the budget, the government has declined to consult on the ground of its constitutional mandate to prepare and present the budget.  Mixed signals about consultations from the government, relentless attacks by the opposition and the inability of the government to control its parliamentary agenda, have all resulted in the government being unable to achieve its objectives, thus creating uncertainty and frustration all around.

It appears that the rancour and animosity created by this situation will continue to play out in the National Assembly and in the press and will probably get worse unless both sides change course. It does not appear that this will happen.

The only factor which appears to be keeping the government in office is the lack of enthusiasm of all parties for new elections. Both government and opposition want to squeeze as much political advantage out of this situation as possible, for as long as possible.

Ralph Ramkarran

This situation offers the opposition some advantages. They are in the majority. But the government has no good options. To co-operate fully with the opposition, including on governance, transparency, the budget and other demands, is the only way to political peace which will allow the government’s development agenda to proceed without hindrance. But to do so will require concessions which the government is not willing to make.

The Party and government will therefore experience a period of stalemate, instability and hostility. The party that stands to lose the most from this situation is the PPP. The strategies of blaming the opposition and isolating the AFC for attacks as promoting violence and as being part of the PNC, are uncertain in their political value. A similar strategy, but with less emphasis on the AFC, did not work at the last elections. There is no reason to suggest that it will work this time around.

This strategy is designed around the fears of Party supporters that the PNC will gain power again, this time with the help of the AFC. However, it does not take into account the fact that if Party supporters had harboured the same level of such past fears at the 2011 elections, so many would not have stayed at home or voted for the AFC in 2011.

It would normally be expected that an electoral loss of such magnitude as suffered by the Party would result in some serious introspection. There is no public indication that such has occurred.
This effort is a public attempt to analyze the reasons for the loss and to offer some ideas on the how some of the issues can be addressed.

Public discussion by Party members, leaders or supporters about internal issues relating to the Party, as is attempted here, has never been countenanced for various historical and political reasons. But the time has come for the Party to enter a new era and for those who are still inspired by the ideals of its founders, and who believe that those ideals can still motivate the Party and people of Guyana to even greater heights and success, to speak publicly, openly and in respectful debate in order to contribute to a better equipped Party which can continue to play a dynamic role in Guyana’s politics.

Negative factors

(a) Election and population statistics

The electoral defeat of the Party is a manifestation of deep seated problems which have been simmering for a while but to which no attention was paid. One such problem has been the decreasing size of the Indian Guyanese population from which the Party obtains its core support.
In 1980 East Indians were 394,417 being 51.93% of the population. In 1991 they were 351,939 and 48.63%. In 2002 they were 326,277 and 43.45%.

Comparable figures for other population groups are: Africans, 1980, 234,094 – 30.82%; 1991, 233,465 – 32.26%; 2002, 227,062 – 30.20%; Amerindians, 1980, 40,343 – 5.31%; 1991, 46,722 – 6.46%; 2002, 68,675 – 9.16%; Mixed, 1980, 84,764 – 11.16%; 1991, 87,881 – 12.14%; 2002, 125,727 – 16.73%.

The Indian Guyanese population is the only one that has shown a marked decline. While the figures are not enough to extrapolate the accurate size of the Indian Guyanese population for 2011, if an average percentage is struck, it will reveal an average decline of 4 per cent every 10 years so that the Indian Guyanese population should be about 39 per cent. Some observers have already estimated that it is below 40 per cent.

The population figures, actual and projected, (taken from the Guyana Statistical Bureau website) and election figures since 1992 are as follows:

In 1992 308,852 persons voted (81%). The PPP obtained 162,058 (53.5%). The PNC obtained 128,246 (42.3%).  Registered voters 384,195. Population 808,000.

In 1997 408,057 persons voted (88.42%). The PPP obtained 220,667 (55.3%). The PNC obtained 161,901 (40.5%). Registered voters 461,481. Population 848,000.

In 2001 403,734 persons voted (91.73%). The PPP obtained 210,113 (53%). The PNC obtained 165, 866 (41.8%). Registered voters 440,185.  Population 867,371.

In 2006 336,375 persons voted (68.82%). The PPP obtained 183,867 (54.6%). The PNC obtained 114,608 (34%). Registered voters 492,369. Population 767,245.

In 2011 342,126 persons voted (71.9%). We obtained 166,340 (48.6%). The PNC obtained 139,698 (40.8%).  Registered voters 475,496. Population 744,768.

These figures show that for the 2006 elections the highest number of registered voters (492,369) of all five elections produced the lowest turnout (68.82%) and the PPP obtained the second lowest aggregate number of votes (183,867).
This wake-up call was ignored.

A repetition occurred at the 2011 elections. The second highest number of registered voters (475,496) produced the second lowest turnout (71.9%) and the lowest number of votes (166,340).
The decline in support of the Party at the 2011 elections has been attributed mainly to poor organization. However, the historically low turnout at the 2006 and 2011 elections and the reducing Indian Guyanese population have not been addressed. The Party considers this kind of analysis too sensitive for public discourse; but it has not even been discussed internally.

(b) The end of socialism and the rise to power

Two main events have transformed the Party over the past two decades. These are the fall of the USSR in 1989 and the obtaining of political power by the PPP in 1992.

The fall of socialism, which came together with the rise of neo-liberalism, reduced the popularity of scientific socialist ideas, not only in Guyana but worldwide. When the Party came to power in 1992, the adoption of the PNC’s Economic Recovery Programme, together with the new local and international environment, resulted in the adoption also of market economic policies. The economic policies in its rules and programme were discarded. Guyana and the PPP did not really have a choice.

Prior to 1992, scientific socialist ideals inspired the Party and its membership. The Party organized and struggled around those ideals. After 1992 these ideals no longer provided the inspirational themes and narratives. The mobilizing capacity of ideology declined greatly. The Party never sought to devise any other or additional mobilizing strategies. The lacuna that developed was filled with issues of governance which, when unresolved as often happens, tend to frustrate rather than mobilize and opens the door to opportunism.

(c) Failure to strengthen measures to improve governance and transparency

As the dominating agenda shifted to development and the deployment of resources became greater with every budget, a larger business class developed. As was to be expected, sections of this class gravitated politically in the direction of the  Party. The Party’s public associations began to shift.
Eventually the public perceptions of close associations with working class heroes such as trade unionists, militant workers or local leaders declined, except for formal occasions, as antagonistic pressures for increased wages and salaries grew. GAWU, representing sugar workers, the militant backbone of the Party since its formation, was threatened with de-recognition. Bauxite workers employed by RUSAL, many of whom and their leaders were in the front lines struggling for democracy, were wrongly denied arbitration by the government.

At the same time, increased expenditures on infrastructure at all levels created the need for increasing mechanisms of transparency. Allegations of corruption and nepotism grew at all levels. The PPP went into a defiant mode. Prove it, was the response.  It was not expected that a Party with such an historic moral tone like the PPP, with the famed integrity of its senior and junior leaderships of the past, would sit back and allow such allegations to grow. It would have been expected that as the clamour increased more laws and measures to enhance transparency and to protect the population would be implemented.

The test of the Party’s commitment against corruption is the establishment of the Procurement Commission. The law was passed ten years ago. At first the Party blamed the PNC for insisting that there must be consensus on all the members instead of the Party nominating three and the PNC two, as for other commissions. Now that the situation has changed in the National Assembly, the Party has adopted the PNC’s position by calling for consensus. This abrupt reversal can only be construed as designed to ensure the continuing stalemate in relation to the establishment of a Procurement Commission. There will never be consensus between the PPP and the opposition on the names. The Party is jeopardizing its electoral prospects by these antics.

The allegations of corruption and lack of transparency in the country remain one of the major weaknesses that the Party has failed to confront. There is now some reluctant admission that corruption exists. Unless institutional and legal measures follow these admissions, this would be a major, continuing source of disappointment among Party supporters.

(d) The economic factors

While the ‘macroeconomic fundamentals’ have been stable, the overall economic growth over the years the PPP has been in office is about 2% to 3%. Notwithstanding the progress in specific industries such as mining, rice, construction and services, the average GDP figure over the past twenty years shows that the economic growth has not been sufficient to make a substantial enough economic impact on the working people to sustain their high level of electoral support as in the past. While large rice farmers, big miners, major contractors and procurement companies supplying government are doing well, sugar workers, rice workers, mining workers have it as hard as ever. While salaries for public servants, police, nurses and teachers have increased substantially over the past twenty years, and those at the top are much better off, the vast majority at the lower end are still struggling to make ends meet with what they earn. The poverty rate is still 30 per cent or close to that figure.
The issue here is not to assess the level of progress. In some areas it has been substantial and visible. Many persons who could not before, can own their own homes; education and health care have vastly expanded and so on. But this is not an argument of how well or not the government has done. The fact of 2 to 3 per cent GDP growth over 20 years speaks for itself and no spin can change that. What we have to determine is whether, based on the modest growth figures, economic factors affecting important sections of the PPP’s supporters such as sugar workers, is one of the reasons that caused reduced support at the 2011 elections.

The economic conditions of sugar workers, the backbone of our electoral support, has not improved sufficiently for them to maintain the rigid loyalty in support of the Party as in the past. They have rebelled repeatedly against low wages and social and economic conditions over the past ten years, especially in Berbice. They perceive, whether rightly or wrongly, that the government has been unsympathetic. This perception has ensnared both the PPP and GAWU. And it is in Berbice that the Party’s vulnerability was most exposed at the elections.

(e) The ethnic factor

The Party makes the mistake of assuming that memory of PNC rule, anti-PNC sentiments or the positive developments from 1992 to now would sustain its support. The reality is that these factors no longer resonate as much as before. People now under 35 years of age, or even older, who make up a substantial portion of the electorate, have no memory of hardships under the PNC. Campaigns based on what the PNC did in the past are no longer electorally appealing to voters who may be inclined to support the Party.

While some fears of the PNC may still exist, they have no fear of the AFC to whom many gave their votes. The Party can no longer rely on the old campaign narratives. It has to rely now on its leadership, its ideas, its record and a correct political strategy. Excuses such as the PNC’s record, the AFC policy, crime and flooding are no longer sufficient. Not only are memories short but economic factors are usually the most important, and can supersede ethnic allegiance. They already did so in our past.

The lesson of the PNC ethnic based support and its alleged longevity is instructive. By the 1978 referendum it was clear that African Guyanese enthusiasm for the PNC had diminished. Civil society’s estimated voter turnout at the referendum was 15 per cent. This was repeated at the elections of 1980 and 1985 when there was an extremely low turnout of actual voters for the PNC.

Thus by fourteen years, 1964 to 1978, the strength and commitment of the PNC’s ethnic electoral base had withered because of its failures. This support returned in 1992 because African Guyanese still saw the PNC as its defender and they did not want their defender to be demolished in the face of a potential PPP victory at the elections, which indeed occurred.

After twenty years in office and some of the issues outlined above, even if only some of them are accurate, why should not the Party expect similar responses from its supporters, while at the same time its ethnic base diminishes?

Reorganising  the  PPP

In these circumstances the Party cannot escape or postpone the restating of its ideology and the reorganizing of its structure. It cannot ignore the developing of new methods of organizing, new ideas and new policies to meet a new situation and new conditions.

No more than a half a dozen parties the world over may have rules similar to those of the Party, down from dozens in the recent past. The rules were drafted in a different era to deal with different conditions in the world and in Guyana. Since then there has been a radical reordering of the world and of Guyana. The Party’s rules must be adapted to the new situation to rebuild inspiration, encourage new narratives, create new methods of organization, realize more creative discourses and democratize the PPP more effectively.

Some simple questions will demonstrate the need. Does the Party any longer publicly advocate Marxism-Leninism, dialectical materialism, proletarian internationalism and democratic centralism? If not, why not? Does the Party any longer publicly promote scientific socialist principles? If not, why not? Does the Party have lectures on ideology or international solidarity issues? How consistently and at what intellectual level are ideological classes conducted? How many members of the Party executive have an understanding of and commitment to Marxism?

The world has moved on and so must the Party. But it does not have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Freed from the strictures that encumbered its development during socialist rule, Marxist intellectuals and academics, particularly in Europe, have been finding over the past two decades new understandings, new interpretations, new flexibilities and new applications.  The world will never return to soviet style socialism or Lenin’s party of the ‘new type’ after which the PPP sought to model itself. But Marxism, a body of theories out of the Enlightenment, and other progressive, democratic and liberal ideas continue to point to a future where capitalism is better understood, methods of harnessing its continued dynamism and potential for development are emerging, where greater capacity is developing to combat its backward trends such as neo-liberalism, and where new ideas and struggles for improved social justice are being inspired.

The Party’s rules must more creatively define who and what the PPP is as well as who and what the PPP aspires to be. It must relate those aspirations to those of the Guyanese people today and in the immediate future in ways that are understood and acceptable by them. It must also project a future based on our ideological persuasion in language which is accessible. Goals for the future must be acceptable to the Guyanese people today.

Membership rules must be flexible and must allow for permanent status rather than loss of membership after one year if dues are not paid. All important decisions, including potentially the choice of party leader (by whatever name) and the presidential      candidate,  must be made by a vote of members. Office holders must be named in the constitution and must be elected at the congress. The Central Committee and the Executive Committee must be elected at congress. New rules, in relation to the whole gamut of issues, will modernize the Party for the new challenges which it faces and at the same time institutionalize practices which have already been adopted.

These are only some of the main ideas but these new rules will inspire Party members with the feeling that they have a greater say in the decision making process and serve as mobilizing and inspirational tools to work for victory at the next elections.

The Party needs to examine different organizational methods and models using technological advances both at the central organizing level and the regional and even district levels. The level of the organizer has to be upgraded and enhanced, or new organizers with the necessary level of skills be employed and given modern equipment and tools, to cope with these new demands. The computer, telephone and mobile phone must be employed as routine weapons to canvass, campaign and mobilize. Private opinion polls must be conducted to find out the opinions of the public, supporters and even members in order to guide policies. Organizers must undergo professional training in political campaigning.

These are not inventing the wheel or adopting anything from America. These methods are applied in the third world already, together with the traditional methods where necessary. Having a captive electorate and a membership with no structured mechanism to speak regularly enough to the leadership, have stifled innovation in the Party and have insulated the leadership and decision-making from the membership.

Movement for the future

Since the inevitable downgrading of ideology, the Party has distinguished itself from the PNC and other parties by its history and struggles for independence and against PNC’s authoritarian rule, by the quality of its leadership in that era (Cheddi Jagan) and by its successes in government. This is no longer sufficient to maintain support, inspire new generations and continue to build a dynamic movement.

Unless it wants to be continually painted into an ethnic corner, with diminishing strength as the Indian Guyanese population diminishes, the loss of its ideological narrative means that the PPP has to refresh its distinguishing features. It has to be clearly distinguishable in philosophical, ideological and programmatic terms from it opponents. The Party must be politically progressive, socially liberal, culturally diverse and ethnically inclusive, respectful to its opponents, and always committed to and publicly promoting political cooperation. On many of these issues it can allow diverse opinions within its ranks to be publicly expressed without harming its overall unity.

The Party itself, as opposed to the government, must be in the forefront of such issues as domestic violence, women’s issues, trafficking in persons, child abuse and exploitation, exploitation of workers in various industries, drug use, prostitution, the environment. There are many more such issues and it does not have to be in confrontation with the government, except that the government must not be in denial about every single social evil that is exposed as existing in Guyana, as if the country is perfect.  The Party could also become involved in constructive work such as training of women and youth, educational training of children, medical outreaches and poverty alleviation activities.
Some of these are already being done but more consistency and a larger scale is needed for its impact to be widely felt. These will help to keep the Party close to the people.

The Party must also be a Party with a big and wide tent which will accommodate all views, publicly expressed, once they do not attack the PPP and are within the general perspectives supported by the Party. There is nothing wrong with advocating new or different positions or calling on the PPP or government to take action on some areas. Commitment to the basic philosophical ideals of the Party, as determined by the individual, must be the only criterion for membership. While there must be a continuous striving for unity, policy differences among members, publicly expressed, is normal in the modern world. Adherence to a rigid orthodoxy determined on the basis of outdated rules is obstructing the growth and development of the Party.

In the past and up to the present, public differences are seen as harming Party unity. Unity is seen only in Leninist terms. Even those terms are distorted. In Lenin’s time Party policy could be challenged openly in the party newspaper. It is the open political parties which have survived. The closed ones, such as communist parties, on which the Party has patterned itself, have all disappeared except where state power keeps them alive.

The future electoral prospects for the Party must be considered in any review. With a dwindling electoral base, a permanent majority might no longer be assured in the future, unless urgent reforms are put in place to restore the support the Party had in 2006 and to attract wider support. Unless measures are taken, not tomorrow, but today, the stark reality of a future of coalition governments must be now placed on the table for consideration, however reluctant it may be to do so.
It is not the talking about this that will make it happen.

But the ignoring of it will not make the possibility go away. For the foreseeable future the Party will be called upon to play an important role in the life of Guyana by the electorate. It must be prepared for any such role. The Party is here to stay. It has a great story, its roots are deep, the ideals of its founders inspiring and it has solid support. Guyana needs the PPP.

However, it will only survive if it grapples with the issues likely to arise in the longer term. The influx of immigrants from Brazil and China and other countries will continue and will create an increasingly diversified population. If immigration increases generally and the Amerindian and mixed populations continue to grow, the Party will have to diversify its appeal and support especially in view of its dwindling ethnic base. Guyana’s population mix will begin to change in twenty-five years. In fifty years Guyana will be unrecognizable.

As the population diversifies, as the numbers of Indian Guyanese decrease, the Party has to broaden its appeal to survive. Since some of these have already begun, any delay by the Party would have negative consequences for it. This work has to start now and the challenges to do so are great.

These are some of the things that ought to be considered in any review. At least one fundamental factor should emerge – demographic calculations have to be de-emphasized in view of the declining Indian Guyanese population and replaced by ideas and policies that are attractive enough to win and maintain support across a broader ethnic spectrum.

Constitutional reform ought to be the first item on the agenda, not because the Party necessarily wants it but because if the electoral stalemate continues the opposition will force it on the agenda. The current system offers an enormous advantage of retaining the presidency and holding on to a minority government once the Party wins the single largest number of votes.

Even if the Party continues to win the largest number of votes (winning an absolute majority for ever in the future, even if it wins such in the next elections, does not appear likely), holding on permanently to a minority government is not politically feasible.

But the opposition will want the method of electing the president (assuming that they opt for a continuation of the presidential system) to be changed. There are two possibilities – separate elections for the president with a run off if no one gets 50 per cent; or upon a vote of the newly elected members of the National Assembly. Or will a return to a prime ministerial system will benefit the Party more?

What about the electoral system, changes to which were recommended by the Constitution Reform Commission and guidance to which already exists in the constitution? The Party has evaded this issue while the opposition has gone to sleep over it. But it is still a live issue and will emerge again.
The issue of shared governance has once again been placed on the agenda by the election results.

Similar results at the next elections which seem not too far away, having regard to the current political impasse, will place the issue irresistibly on the agenda. The Party has to have answers.

Differing views are now emerging in an attempt to revise the foundation of the Party’s earlier stance in support of shared governance. One view is that Cheddi Jagan proposed it because it was the least painful way to remove the PNC dictatorship. Another view is that he saw it as the way to lead to socialism.  On the basis of these views, shared governance as supported by the PPP in the past is no longer relevant.
In fact, the basis of the proposals in the National Patriotic Front, essentially repeated by Cheddi Jagan in 1989 and 1991 as “shared governance” and “winner does not take all” was for a “political solution,” not merely to end the dictatorship or introduce socialist oriented development. It was not a tactic but a political strategy for long term political stability which was being adversely affected by the ethnic division of Guyana which translated into high intensity adversarial politics between two large parties deriving their support from the major ethnic blocs and which had led to authoritarian rule and which was likely to harm our development for the foreseeable future.

Cheddi Jagan saw it as a long term “political solution” to bring to an end the perpetual political instability that it would forever engender. For this reason the Party disagreed strongly with the WPA’s proposals for a Government of National Unity and Reconstruction which had proposed the complete exclusion of the PNC. It could be that the WPA saw itself as replacing the PNC which it may have expected to disappear. The greater wisdom of Cheddi Jagan and the PPP discerned that the PNC would be an enduring presence in Guyana.

Cheddi Jagan fought fiercely against spirited opposition and in open debates within the Party for his National Patriotic Front Proposals.

It was neither his first nor his last fight within the Party. Nor was it the first or last time that he reached out to supporters, friends, and even critics in unorganized or organised groups, forums or bodies, some private, others public. The Party was positively influenced by reaching out in discourse and can equally benefit at this time if these methods are resumed.

The results of the 2011 elections suggest that the Party should reach out, engage and consult, not circle the wagons as if under siege. The Party owes it to its supporters to secure for itself a permanent place in the governance of the nation. It is the only bulwark against a return to authoritarian rule which is yet to be disavowed by the PNC. The PPP can only maintain its position by constant renewal.
If not, it risks losing its place permanently, and losing Guyana for its people.

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