In the face of questions being asked about the AFC’s prospects at the upcoming polls, presidential candidate Khemraj Ramjattan is confident of attracting support from members of the electorate who are disenchanted with the status quo, in addition to new voters.
Ramjattan is of the view that the party’s appeal lies in its work over the last five years as well as in its ability to present a new generation of leaders who have integrity and are unencumbered by the baggage of the past.
“Even though we might have the situation where we don’t do as well as we anticipate, we have to carry on and carry on,” he told Stabroek News on Friday, while saying that the AFC is the party of the future. “Our message has been that you cannot vote the same way and expect different results and a lot of people have been listening to us. And that is why you cannot mark the AFC down.”
Five years ago, the AFC entered the general elections as a largely unknown quantity. The year-old party—founded by Ramjattan, Raphael Trotman and Sheila Holder, who left the PPP/C, the PNCR and the WPA, respectively—won five seats after presenting itself to voters as a “Third Force” alternative to what it characterised as the race-based politics of the two major parties.
However, a lot of the party’s support was credited to then presidential candidate Trotman, based on its success in traditional PNCR strongholds, while Ramjattan’s national profile did not yield significant support in PPP bases. The PNCR, which lost five seats, has now placed its bets on a new presidential candidate in David Granger and an opposition coalition with GAP, the WPA, NFA and the GPP, under the grouping of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU).
Ramjattan, who has been criticised for the AFC’s decision to stick by a founding principle against any pre-electoral alliance with the PNCR, is sceptical that the development would see the party losing its support base. He questioned the work of the PNCR over the last five years and in particular its representation of its constituency in the National Assembly. “We have been there, showing an integrity in our positions,” he explained, while arguing that the main opposition’s “Come Back Home” appeal is rooted firmly in the realm of racial politics.
“…As if the PNC has a transport over black people! If the black people feel that the PNC got a transport over them, they could go right ahead and vote for the PNC. If the East Indians feel that the PPP got a transport over them [they could go right ahead and vote for them] but… that would be the death knell of this country,” he said.
“The people must have transport over their political parties and if the political parties and the leadership are not performing, they change them. And that is what the right-thinking people did the last time. And it is only going to multiply, because we have performed,” he added. “As a coolie man, I have looked after lots more non-Indian interests.”
Ramjattan also noted that since the last elections, the party has made inroads in the PPP’s support base, which he believes has partly resulted in unsuccessful bottom house campaigns for the ruling party. He said this has been the case at Cane Grove, Port Mourant and Bath Settlement, where he said the AFC has been representing the interests of the people. This situation, combined with what he characterised as the unpopular candidacy of Donald Ramotar—which he said has created a rift among rank and file members—has influenced the recent call by the ruling party for a reopening of the registration process for persons who were unable to register due to their not having source documents. “The PPP wants to adjourn the elections… [It] is getting scared,” he charged.
He noted that even in Amerindian communities, where the government continues to spend money as an electoral gimmick, voters have indicated their support for the AFC. “They want land rights and the AFC has made a commitment to that,” he said. “They say they want more substantive things… better livelihoods, land rights, etcetera. In my view, the government would be in for a shock in the Amerindian areas.”
He acknowledged that the AFC did not win a lot of votes in his area, Number 47 Village, Corentyne, at the last polls but said it did not mean that it should back off, while pointing out that the late former President Cheddi Jagan had only won one seat when he first ran for office.
“We are going to have to deal with generations of behavioural patterns and it will take some time. But not because we didn’t get East Indian votes means that East Indians are not gonna change. East Indians will ultimately change and it will force the PPP to behave better if it wants its constituency to remain with it. And it will force the PNC, if it wants its constituency to remain with it and that is what politics is all about and when you do your job that is better for the country and that is also a benefit that the Alliance For Change has brought,” he said.
Asked whether there was a strategy to win Indo-Guyanese votes, Ramjattan said, “Indo-Guyanese are just like Afro-Guyanese, there is nothing different, they are all human beings.” According to him, Indo-Guyanese voters still feel “wronged” by the PNCR over the denial of free and fair elections during the latter’s tenure in government. At the same time, he said Afro-Guyanese see the PPP/C as a bastion of corruption since it got into power, while the party’s control over the economy has left Afro-Guyanese feeling marginalised and alienated. “It is more than a perception. To a certain extent, black people in this country, along with Amerindians, are marginalised,” he added.
As a result, Ramjattan said the AFC’s strategy for winning over both constituencies continues to be to convince them that it is not a race-based party and would not take such an approach to governance. “It is not about race but about the quality of leadership that you get,” he said, while noting that the racial make-up of other territories in the Caribbean and further afield does not seem to affect the prospects of Guyanese who have moved there and prospered.
He also cited the party’s policy of rotating its leadership in offices as one of its strategies to dealing with racial insecurity. “We have to believe that reason will ultimately prevail, we have to believe that there can be what can be called a transcendence of ethnic gravitations, based on integrity,” he said.
According to Ramjattan, the AFC is also counting on picking up votes from those who abstained during the last national polls—when there was a 68.82% voter turnout, down from the two previous general and regional polls. He estimated that the figure for persons who abstained is over 100,000.
He was confident about the party’s appeal to young people, whom he said recognised the “politics of the olden days” practised by the PPP and the PNCR. He noted that a lot of the party’s young supporters have helped it to create a wider pool of leaders, making the AFC a viable option.
Ramjattan explained that while the party has attracted some prominent supporters, like Charandass Persaud and Veerasammy Ramayya in Berbice as well as Tarron Khemraj and Sasenarine Singh in the diaspora, it is a lot young people without the “baggage of the past” who will be among the new faces its presents to the electorate. “It is not only about prominent citizens in the country,” he said. “You need people who will do work on the ground and come with integrity. What are the faces if they don’t do the work on the ground and have integrity? If we don’t want to reward the new and the ones who have integrity… that is why we will remain a banana republic.”
He did, however, assure that the AFC’s current leadership will continue to play a big role this year. He added that while both the PPP and the PNCR would try and convince voters that they have changed, there are no new faces in either party. “They are but two sides of the same coin, and we are a totally different coin and our currency is gaining in value.”
When asked about the visibility of the party’s supporters, Ramjattan explained that many still fear victimisation from the administration and would prefer to show support at the ballot box, rather than with a demonstration. “A lot of them are scared of coming out at this stage,” he said. “And so it is not going to be a kind of determination based on a lack of massive meetings. It’s in the quiet moment in the ballot box where they would determine that they want a change, and determine their destiny.”
He further noted that the party has been doing fairly well financially. As soon as elections are announced, he said, it expects financing from businessmen as well as small contributions from ordinary supporters, who have already been donating what they can afford at party meetings. He also noted the party’s strong support in New York, New Jersey and in the Caribbean, where it has chapters, and said that once the elections are held within the time limit, finances have been worked out. “Although, we will always be in need of money, because you can do so much and the PPP is gong to abuse state resources,” he added.