Launched as a party of change, the AFC went on to astound the nation by winning five seats at the 2006 elections despite being in its embryonic stage. Many were excited by its message of issues-based rather than race-based politics. Furthermore, the two founder-leaders, Khemraj Ramjattan and Raphael Trotman had developed reputations for being frank, sincere and refreshing. Thus it was generally expected that, aiming to build on the successes of 2006, the party would have crisscrossed the nation and motivated a jaded electorate to dump old ethnic politics and embrace its new politics. It was thought that the AFC would immediately focus on establishing a national structure, building a cadre of leaders at every level, becoming as inclusive as possible by working through differences to prove that it is indeed an alliance for change, and intensely interacting with the electorate to get their input in crafting plans and policies for governance. None of this took place and, in fact, the party seemed to become stuck in gear. However, within the past two years or so the AFC has established offices in various parts of the country as well as support groups/cells in some areas and has ramped up its membership drive. Yet, in spite of the AFC’s claims to be gaining traction, it would seem that these efforts are too little, too late, and thus, the hoped for national impact has not yet materialized.
Now also, it seems that the AFC is making the oft-repeated mistake of equating attendance at its meetings as sealed and delivered votes. The fact is that the history of third parties in Guyana indicates that after similarly mistaking supportive crowd behaviour and criticisms of rival parties, for electoral support, these parties (DLM, WPA, URP, et al) experienced reality checks at elections as ingrained electoral behaviour kicked in.
Moreover, with just a few months before elections 2011, the AFC still seems not to quite grasp what is entailed in changing voter behaviour in a country where issues, common sense and logic take back seats to ethnic/party loyalty and group psychology. As a result the AFC has embarked on a campaign that focuses on media and meetings, essentially talking to people rather with them, and failing to use the collective wisdom of the people to determine the way forward. In short, consultative democracy has been eschewed, a charge also made of the AFC by one of its former leaders, Michael Carrington. Also there is the dilemma of convincing supporters of the two major parties that a vote for the AFC would ensure that neither the PPP nor the PNC wins the election. After all, the endeavour to nullify historically ingrained voter behaviour, which is so deeply embedded in party loyalty, group dynamics and race identity, cannot be done without extensive and intensive interaction with the voter aimed at creating a comfort level as a prelude to impacting the psyche.
These realities aside, the AFC is also facing a number of other problems. The first is that Guyana’s political history is not sprinkled with kept promises and thus voters may well be sceptical of the AFC’s rhetoric, as appealing as it may be, especially when such is doled out by some spokespersons who come across as arrogant know-it-alls and who are dismissive of valid criticisms as well as by technocrats who have no political experience and sometimes speak from strictly theoretical positions, that may or may not be applicable in Guyana’s context. Additionally, some AFC spokespersons have, time and again, made statements that are patronizing, alienating and/or antagonizing. It almost seems that the AFC believes that an any-and-all-costs, rhetoric driven campaign will get the job done. Thus the party seems unaware that oftentimes the rhetoric leaves much to be desired, and that oftentimes too the messages are conflicting, if not eclectic. Could these realities be negatively affecting the AFC?
That would seem to be so according to a very reliable source, a former political activist and MP in Guyana, who states, “I don’t see any swing for the AFC on the ground.” The AFC should already have commissioned at least two polls, to help plan policies and positions, and to craft strategies aimed at changing voter behaviour – the data driven approach to electoral campaigning. Now, the AFC must be careful that any poll before elections does not spring another Dick Morris, as that would do irreversible harm to the party’s credibility.
With respect to leadership there are two issues that stand out. The first is that there is a perception that the AFC leadership comprises far too few individuals who can be considered cabinet material, as very few have qualitative track records in or out of politics. Additionally, the AFC’s currently constituted leadership does not comprise many domiciled Guyanese of standing and status. The second is what the late Professor Rex Nettleford warned against: the rise of the manager and the rejection of the leader: “So many of us wish to do things right as the manager does, rather than do the right things as good leaders always do.” Very few of the AFC’s leadership have had any significant experiences as good leaders, but many of them come from the mould of the manager who firmly believes he has most, if not all the answers. In fact, the entire AFC Action Plan was written by one such manager type, with some assistance from a few others, mostly of the same type, almost all of them bereft of pragmatic Guyanese political or defining leadership experience.
Also while the AFC claims that its two-person rotating leadership strategy is aimed at negating race-based politics, it has been suggested that the AFC attracted more African support in 2006 because Trotman was the presidential candidate and thus scepticism is being expressed in some quarters about Ramjattan’s ability to retain, much less increase that support. In fact, some commentators feel that much of that African support would revert back to the PNC because of Granger’s appeal, the low-key position of the cantankerous Corbin and the perception that APNU could win the upcoming elections.
In fact Mr Trotman’s decision to opt out of the prime ministerial slot has also raised questions about differences between Messrs Ramjatan and Trotman; differences that may have to do with adhering to agreements and stipulations as well as approaches towards coalition politics, especially given that based on public pronouncements Mr Trotman was/is apparently much keener than Mr Ramjattan in exploring alliances with other opposition forces and a broader cross-section of activists and high profile Guyanese. Additionally, the 2006 elections indicated that Mr Ramjattan was not a significant vote-getter and thus the AFC’s capacity to woo Indian votes comes into question. In fact, one school of thought suggests that should Mr Ramjattan fizzle out at the upcoming elections, Trotman, would be blameless and thus would be ideally positioned to take back the top slot for the 2016 elections and do things his way.
Also, the issue of race has often taken centre stage in various AFC discussion fora and oftentimes has generated significant degrees of animosity. The overall impression is that while the AFC claims to eschew race-based politics it is very fuzzy on how this has been achieved, thus leaving unanswered questions about eschewing race at the pragmatic policy implementation level. In fact, the short history of the AFC contains at least one known example of pandering to race in the rejection of its one-time rising star, Gaumatie Singh. Furthermore, it is an open secret that significant amounts of money being poured into the AFC’s coffers come from the diaspora and that most of these AFC disapora supporters are middle-class Indo-Guyanese businesspersons and professionals. To what extent would they play a role in any AFC government? And how would their involvement, if any, jell with an approach that pushes race into the background? After all it must be recalled that Mr Ramjattan told a meeting of Guyanese in Canada that an AFC government would have at least three cabinet ministerial positions for members of the diaspora. Already their influence is being felt as best manifested by the presence of an AFC campaign manager who has zero campaign management and negligible political experience.
Then there is the issue of inclusiveness. While the AFC enthusiastically started out on the premise that its arms were open for all Guyanese who wanted the kind of change it espouses, it very quickly became lukewarm to such inclusiveness. Thus many who are seen as reflective of similar ideals propagated by the AFC, have not found accommodation within that party. And even the one case whereby such accommodation was realized – with Peter Ramsaroop giving up his presidential aspirations to work within the AFC – quickly unravelled. Also, in keeping with inclusiveness, some are suggesting that a Moses Nagamootoo-led AFC slate could win at the upcoming polls. And they argue that, in the interest of the nation, Messrs Ramjattan and Trotman should be able to defer to Mr Nagamootoo for one term, which would also give the AFC an opportunity to consolidate and be even better positioned for election 2016 and beyond. There are some who attempt to debunk this by stating that since Trotman and Ramjattan founded the party it is their right to lead it to elections and any government that results. However, this argument goes against the grain of new politics that essentially should put country first and should certainly not pander to ‘proprietary rights’ with respect to political parties.
In any case, regardless of its real chances, every political party supposedly contests elections to win. Oftentimes a party will state its minimum goal. In the case of the AFC that goal seems to be to ensure that the PPP does not gain a plurality of votes so that the AFC will the end up holding the balance of power. But therein lies the AFC’s dilemma. This party is on record as not wanting any political accommodation with either the PPP or the PNC/APNU. So how will it hold a balance of power? Will it sit in parliament as an independent entity, allow a minority government and then oppose or support as it sees fit? Or will it collaborate with either the PPP or APNU to form what is in effect a majority government, thereby going back on its stated position? And how would any collaboration work out, given the ideological and other significant differences between the AFC on the one hand and the PPP and the PNC/APNU on the other?