History This Week No. 43/2007


In the last article, the four general elections held between 1947 and 1961 were examined. The last three, those of 1953, 1957 and 1961 were conducted after the institution of universal adult suffrage under the first past the post system. That of 1957 was a landslide victory for the first mass based political party – the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). The second was also handsomely won by the PPP albeit the Jaganite faction of that party so called due to its 1955 split into Burnhamite and Jaganite factions. The Jaganite faction won despite accusations of being communist. It won again, but less handsomely, in 1961 despite strong opposition from the People’s National Congress (PNC) the name taken by the Burnhamite faction of the PPP in 1959 after its absorption of the UDP and from the anti communist United Force (UF). The last elections before independence and the first under the system of Proportional Representation (PR) was held in 1964. That election and those of 1968 and 1973 are the subject of this article.

The 1964 general elections

The year 1961 proved to be the last tranquil year for nearly half a decade. Violent protests in Georgetown started by the UF against the Kaldor budget were exacerbated by disputes and strike action mainly by city workers. The conflagration started on ‘Black Friday’, February 16, with looting and arson in Georgetown. In early 1963, it spread in escalating waves of racial violence into the countryside. It was fuelled by the TUC’S protest against the Labour Relations Bill and the GAWU recognition strike. The violence was to continue well into 1964 with the horrible tragedy of the “Son Chapman” disaster among the most traumatic. Additionally, there was a political deadlock resulting from the 1962 and 1963 constitutional conferences. The 1962 Constitutional Conference was adjourned when the representatives of the PNC and UF insisted that new elections be held under PR before the granting of independence. On the other hand, the PPP requested a reduction in the voting age in a bid to counteract the effects of PR.

The first proposal was vigorously opposed by Jagan and the second equally so by Burnham and D’Aguiar. The adjourned Conference recommenced in October 1963. The two opposition leaders refused to make any compromise on the issue of elections under PR before elections and the voting age. Eventually, frustrated by the continued deadlock, Jagan was manipulated into joining the other two leaders into giving written permission to Duncan Sandys, the Secretary of State to make the final decision on the several contentious issues including the conduct of the elections. He, not surprisingly, came down on the side of PR. The 1964 election resulted in the incumbent PPP gaining 46% of the votes and 24 seats, the PNC 40% of the votes and 22 seats, and the UF 11.4% of the votes and seven seats. While the seats now gained by the PNC were more reflective of the percentage of the votes it had received it was not enough to catapult it into power. It had to share power with the UF to do so.

The general elections prior to independence demonstrated that the Guyanese people expected and were freely allowed to exercise their franchise to elect a government of their choice. However, they, especially in the elections from 1957, also demonstrated that they were swayed more by the charisma and ethnicity of the political leaders rather than the issues they say they would address if they were successful at the polls. The 1964 elections under PR further underscored this trend.

The 1968 general elections

The four years between the general elections of 1964 and 1968 were very significant. The most significant event of course being the granting of independence from Britain on May 26, 1966 ironically, not under Cheddi Jagan who had struggled so relentlessly in his “Fight for Guyana’s Freedom” but under his political opponents the Burnham/D’Aguiar, PNC/UF coalition.

The election itself was significant in its own right. Not only was it the first election before Guyana became a Republic on February 23, 1970, it was also the first in which the Guyanese “diaspora” participated in electing the country’s decision makers. This was made possible through the passing of Ordinance no.6 of 1968, the Representation of the People (Adaptation and Modification of Laws) Act. The ordinance led to the introduction of overseas voting, the increase in the use of proxy voting and the presentation of the candidates list in alphabetical order. In fact, the passing of this act proved to be the final “irreconcilable difference” that led to the dissolution of the four year contentious relationship of the unequally yoked PNC and UF.

Though many were uncertain and apprehensive over the implications of postal/overseas voting and increased proxy voting, over 93% of the electorate exercised their franchise. There were 312,429 valid votes cast. Of those 34,475 were overseas ballots. Of these 34,429 or 75% were cast in favour of the incumbent PNC. Overall the PNC received 174,339 or 55.8% of the votes cast equal to 30 seats; the PPP, 113,991 or 36.4% of votes cast and 19 seats; the UF, 23,102 or 7.4% of the votes cast and four seats. The Guyana United Muslim Party (GUMP) 899 votes. The hope that PR would lead to the formation of several Indian political parties that would challenge the hegemony of the PPP proved to be little more than wishful thinking.

Moreover, both detractors and supporters of the PNC conceded that there were significant malpractices in the conduct of the 1968 general elections. In the immediate aftermath of the elections both Cheddi Jagan and D’Aguiar declared that there had been extensive manipulation and fraud. The latter stated: “It is better to lose with honour than to win by fraud”. Percy Hintzen in his article “The Colonial Foundations of Race Relations and Ethno-Politics in Guyana” posited that in 1968 Burnham used his control of the administrative machinery to assure his party of the majority in parliament in an election which by most evidence was rigged. He supported his contention by demonstrating that as a result of the election, the PNC got 55% of the vote as compared with 40% in 1964 while the PPP’s percentage fell from 46% in 1964 to 36% in 1968. Given, he continued, that in 1968 the black population was 31% of the total and the Indian 50% of the total and that ethnic sentiment still remained high and ethnic politics continued to characterise the Guyanese political behaviour, the 1968 results were unlikely. Tyrone Ferguson, former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in his book To Survive Sensibly or to Court Heroic Death: Management of Guyana’s Political Economy 1965 to 1985 conceded that it was clear that electoral irregularities did occur in 1968. However, as a result of the election, the PNC was able to shed its unsatisfactory coalition partner. The UF had served its purpose. Despite the uncertainties, the electorate went to the polls in December 1968 with a sense of optimism and hope. That was not the case in 1973.

Background to the 1973

general elections

In the four and a half years that were to elapse between the 1968 and 1973 general elections there were numerous fast moving and sometimes bewildering changes on all fronts. Even before the PNC had an opportunity to savour its freedom after the dissolution of its “marriage of convenience” from the UF, in January 1969 came the Rupununi uprising under the leadership of the self styled rebel leader, Valerie Hart. She had been one of the few women on the UF list of candidates for the 1968 elections. Ultimately, the uprising did more harm to the prestige of the UF than that of the PNC. Later that same year the sabre rattling of Venezuela whom the PNC had accused of complicity in the uprising almost led to a contentious end of the Mixed Commission which had been established under the 1966 Geneva Agreement to deal with the border controversy. However, with the permission of Prime Minister Eric Williams, Trinidad was the venue
of the final discussions which eventually led to the signing of the Protocol of Port of Spain which put the border issue to rest for another decade. The year 1969 saw the emergence of a political pressure group, Ratoon and in 1970 Movement against Oppression (MAO). They were soon to be joined by the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA) established in 1964 under the leadership of Eusi Kwayana, former PNC stalwart Sydney King. They not only challenged the government’s overall management of the economy, they also begun to intrude on the PNC’s political space.

The year 1970 proved to be truly momentous for Burnham and the PNC. On February 23, 1970, Guyana was declared a Republic under the rubric of “Cooperative Socialism.” The ultimate goal – domination of “the commanding heights of the economy.” The ideological outflanking of the PPP had begun.

In future articles the examination of the 1973 elections will be concluded and the others held under the PNC and PPP examined.

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