This is a very strange election season. It lacks any kind of fizz. Of course, it’s difficult for the PPP to drum up much excitement when they have been in office for nineteen years; the electorate has heard it all before, and they can easily distinguish the reality from the hype. And in any case, old governments get tired, and find it difficult to inject freshness into a campaign, more especially if they don’t have anything new to say.
As has been observed in earlier editorials, the main opposition which the ruling party currently confronts does not come in the shape of a political party, but in the form of apathy, including apathy among their own supporters. Despite the large-scale distribution of house lots – albeit in a haphazard and flawed way – and despite some major infrastructural work and the development of areas such as Diamond and elsewhere, the PPP grass-roots supporters in many cases are doing no better than anyone else. And they also see what everyone else sees, ie, that a class of ultra wealthy people has grown up in the last two decades; that the gulf separating the rich from the poor is growing ever wider; that there is far too much corruption associated with officialdom; that bureaucratic incompetence abounds; and that the moral framework which should undergird any society appears to be disintegrating. And then, of course, there is the burgeoning crime rate fuelled by the narcotics trade that undermines everyone’s security.
The second problem which confronts any Freedom House campaign manager is that the governing party has to all intents and purposes lost its traditional opposition. The PNC seems to have disappeared from the political equation, and since the PPP has always defined itself in relation to that party, once the latter is missing, it is difficult for the political descendants of Cheddi Jagan to push the usual buttons to rouse the faithful. They did, it is true, try to do so at the outset, with President Jagdeo exhorting the older generation at Babu John to instruct the young in what happened (according to the PPP) under the PNC, but this probably fell on deaf ears. Burnham died all of twenty-six years ago, and the young people of this country are not interested in a past that has no relevance for them, even if their parents and grandparents were disposed to instruct them in it. All they have ever known is the PPP/C administration, and they will draw their own conclusions from their own experiences. In other words, the PPP constituency has outgrown the PPP leadership.
And it must appear even to the older generation of PPP supporters, that the PNC as a political entity is no longer an organization with clout. In fact, as said earlier, it is barely visible, buried as it is within the cumbersome acronym of APNU. They cannot, for example, have failed to notice that the element which seems to have the highest profile in APNU is – irony of ironies – the WPA. This was the party which actively struggled against Burnham, and whose leader was assassinated in the process. The standard anti-PNC rhetoric, therefore, simply makes no sense to anyone in the current circumstances. Even before the WPA entered the fray as part of the APNU coalition, the PNC had been fatally weakened by the separation of the positions of presidential candidate and leader. As it is, presidential candidate David Granger is self-effacing to the point where he has not been able to leave any imprint on the campaign, while Robert Corbin’s voice is heard only at lengthy intervals, the most recent being at Stabroek Market Square on Thursday. It has left everyone, not least of all the PNC’s traditional constituency, wondering just who is in charge – or indeed if anyone is.
In fact, without the traditional symbols of the PNC, as well, perhaps, as an absence of some of the familiar faces, one has to ask whether the older supporters of the main opposition will respond to APNU at all, and whether many of them will not just stay home on election day. Alternatively, some of the younger ones, at least, might repeat what they did in 2006 and vote for the AFC, more especially now that Raphael Trotman is the prime ministerial candidate. Whether or not that is the case, as mentioned above, it can’t be lost on the average PPP adherent that the PNC is simply not the force it once was, more especially since there have been some high-profile defections from it to the PPP – either public or implied. (Those defections, in and of themselves, will make absolutely no difference to the campaign one way or the other.)
One might add too that since APNU appears so lacking in energy, it raises speculation about whether campaign funding might be an issue. There could be all kinds of reasons why the customary financial backers of the PNC might be hesitant to put money into the campaign, especially in circumstances where the leadership is fuzzy and the identity of the party has been subsumed under that of a new political entity. The latter might not have mattered if there were a leader of some dynamism at the helm, but in the absence of that, then party identity – or lack thereof – might loom larger as a consideration.
Then there is the AFC whom the PPP at one stage tried to tell its constituents was interchangeable with the PNC. It supporters will find this hard to take seriously, given what has happened to the PNC, in addition to which it is a former PPP member who is now the party’s presidential candidate. Whether the AFC in the end will be able to siphon off any votes from the PPP constituency is not something which anyone will know until the results of the election are revealed, but the ruling party clearly doesn’t want to take any chances in that department. As it is, the leading lights in the PPP have resorted to their usual vituperative rhetoric in relation to the AFC and Mr Ramjattan in particular, a tactic which had already been employed against Mr Granger by President Jagdeo. There is no evidence at present, however, that this well-worn tactic is firing up PPP supporters. For their part, some opposition supporters are hardly careful in their language either in describing the government and its members, and this is not conducive to the kind of rational debate which they claim they want.
Whether the AFC has a war-chest for campaign purposes is not known, but one suspects that the only really well-funded campaign will be that of the PPP. In any case the last-named party has already demonstrated that it is prepared to use state resources for its own political ends. Despite the ample funding, the advantage of being a sitting government and no PNC in its old incarnation around, the PPP is still trying to manipulate the media environment to limit the ability of the opposition to get its message out to the electorate.
While Channels 7 and 9 will provide an outlet for the expression of opposition views, they are not stations which have much resonance with the PPP’s own constituency. Channel 6, on the other hand, has a signal which reaches further than the others, and which has a following on the East and West coasts in PPP areas. One cannot avoid the conclusion, therefore, that as said in our Monday editorial the only reason for the station’s recent suspension is political. Since at the moment there is no indication that the state media intend to provide equal access to the opposition, it means that Freedom House is attempting to ensure that the public hears only PPP voices.
The PPP has, of course, made a major issue of the defacement of their billboards (at the moment, they are the only party which has any), and while that certainly is to be deplored, it is not the equivalent of depriving the opposition of media access, which goes to the heart of the conditions necessary for the holding of free and fair elections. That aside, as the ruling party well knows, billboards never did win an election in this country; they are merely about image and the attempt to stir positive responses from supporters.
The PPP is still operating with an outmoded mindset, and does not appear to have understood that whatever happens on election day, politics have changed in this country. The full nature of that change may yet take some years to reveal itself, but the old guard on both sides has gone; the PNC is at best in transition; and a young generation with access to the internet has little tolerance for the old-style party yoke. The free-thinking which infects the world wide web, will sooner or later have its impact here.