In The Diaspora:Expectations for the 2011 National Elections: Part 2

Harry Hergash, a graduate of the University of Guyana, taught at the Annandale Government Secondary from 1964 to 1969. He immigrated to Canada in 1974.

By Harry Hergash

Last week, in Part 1 of this article, I reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of the two major parties as they get ready for next year’s general elections. In Part 2 today, I look at the Alliance For Change (AFC), the other minor parties, the likely outcome as seen at this time, a little more than a year prior to the contest, and I offer a concluding thought on the electoral process.

The AFC is a relative newcomer, arriving on the scene just before the 2006 elections with one of its two founders coming from the PNC and the other from the PPP. It was intended to be a new movement to attract young people and voters across the racial divide, and to break the stranglehold of the two major parties on their respective racial constituencies. However, analyses conducted after the elections have indicated that this party succeeded mainly in attracting African Guyanese votes away from the PNC. In addition, the party suffered a credibility problem for many soon after the elections, when it backpedalled on a reported commitment to allocate a parliamentary seat to its Secretary, an Indian Guyanese, causing her to leave in a storm of controversy.

Unfortunately, the fate of third parties in most countries is not encouraging. They are usually squeezed between the major parties that are on either side of the right-left political spectrum or, as in the case of Guyana, stranded in the middle of the ethnic divide between two major race groups, or caught between opposing religious elements. Occasionally however, as is currently the case in Britain, a third party can hold the balance of power when neither major party gains an outright majority.

The dilemma facing the AFC as it prepares for the next election is similar to that of the PNC, i.e. how to strike a balance between its efforts to retain its existing support of mainly African Guyanese and take action or enunciate policies to attract Indian Guyanese. So far it has not convincingly demonstrated that it can. In fact, about a month ago, race calculus seems to have caused an impasse that had the potential of splitting the Party over its founding commitment of rotation of incumbents in the positions of Party Leader and Party Chairman. The rumour mill became active with speculations of the imminent departure of Mr. Ramjattan whose turn it was to be Party Leader. After weeks of uncertainty, a truce seems to have been worked out. However, this matter is likely to resurface when delegates meet later in the year to endorse the Party’s Presidential and Prime Ministerial candidates for the 2011 elections. A Stabroek News report of June 28, notes “There has been strong disagreement within the party over the retention of the rotation principle and about whether Ramjattan would be endorsed as the presidential candidate for next year’s election in the light of support for Trotman as candidate by some quarters”. In any case, irrespective of what decision is made in this regard, this recent development has once again called into question the credibility of the AFC’s leadership and may have diminished the Party’s chances of winning over Indian Guyanese. As well, Mr. Ramjattan’s leadership of efforts to have an international commission look into the alleged killings in Guyana by convicted drug lord Roger Khan has been derided by many Indian Guyanese, who believe that Khan was more effective than the security forces in confronting the post Mash Day jail-break violence against their community by so-called “freedom fighters”. Consequently, this may not help the AFC in winning Indian votes in some quarters.

The minor parties do not merit much attention, as each on its own is too insignificant to have an impact. Also, there have been speculations about a coming together of the opposition parties to field a joint candidate to oppose the governing party in 2011, a prospect that at this time does not seem likely. Such an attempt for the last elections proved futile and earlier this year the blame game played out in the press. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that rancour, resentment and oversized egos among the key players will subside to make such an initiative workable.

To date the opposition parties have been telling Guyanese about the wrongdoings and ills of the PPP in government. Unfortunately they have not been enunciating their vision for the country and how they plan to achieve it. Their strategy seems more geared to turn voters away from the PPP rather than giving voters reasons for voting them in office. The rice and the sugar industries, for example, provide employment for a large number of PPP supporters, likely a total of around fifty or sixty thousand. These people are not likely to turn their backs on the PPP for another party that does not demonstrate to them, by way of an alternative approach, how they would be able to feed their families in case they are inclined to make a switch. In fact, their recollection is that both the rice and the sugar industries faltered when the PPP was not in government and consequently the old adage of “once bitten twice shy” applies.

Likewise the issue of safety and security are of concern to all Guyanese but Indian Guyanese have some specific fears since they tend to dominate the retailing industry as shopkeepers, bar owners, petrol station operators, etc. and these business places are the usual target of armed robbery which, in many cases, is accompanied by maiming and murder. Again, the opposition parties have not outlined their plans for ending this scourge. Pointing to the incompetence of the Government without offering an alternative solution is not likely to win converts. In fact, the major opposition parties have allowed themselves to be seen or portrayed as being more on the side of the perpetrators than the victims of crimes.

So, where do we go from here? I believe the governing PPP is likely to be returned with a majority. In my view, whether it will gain an overall majority to allow it to govern on its own or a case of its needing a junior partner will depend on the two major opposition parties. Instead of seeing race as the motivation for PPP voters, the opposition parties need to start thinking of peoples’ self interest and focus on addressing these. They need to understand, if I may paraphrase German philosopher Karl Marx, that “people must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before they can pursue politics, religion, philosophy and so on” or understand American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” that shows food, clothing, sleep, shelter and security as primary needs that must be fulfilled in order to motivate people. It should not be surprising that despite its sampling flaws, the CADRES poll has identified the cost of living, unemployment and crime as the major concerns of the Guyanese electorate.  These are the real concerns of the people and what is significant, but seems lost on the Opposition parties, is the CADRES finding that “a disproportionate number of PPP/Civic supporters believed that their party has a superior ability to grow the economy and the supporters of other small parties believe that the PPP/Civic also has some capacity to fight crime”.

The great pity of all this is that neither the ruling PPP nor any of the opposition parties seems to be concerned with or considering the emptiness of these periodic elections. This electoral process, for the foreseeable future, is unlikely to provide each ethnic group the security and/or perception of security that is rightfully theirs. In October 1963, as a teenager and member of the first batch of students of the University of Guyana, I sat in the auditorium of Queen’s College in Georgetown and listened to Professor Lancelot Hogben, Vice Chancellor of the newly established university, as he remarked in his inaugural address “If peoples of different territorial ancestry cannot live at peace in British Guiana, how gloomy is the prospect for mankind! … Because we are, though small, a multiracial community, it may be that we can make a unique contribution to civic education in what we may hope to be the Age of Plenty only if peoples of different colour, creed and country can coexist peacefully”. Guyana today is no less divided than it was in 1963. Is it not time to have a more inclusive form of government to weather the uncharted waters of the international arena, a government that reflects the unique history of all its people?

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