It seems many moons ago since the PPP/C embarked on its odyssey in government, while the commitments and assurances it gave then sound to us now like the covenants from a simpler and less cynical era. In any event, it must be hard, even for those who dwell in Freedom House, to conjure up again that sense of euphoria tinged with uncertainty about the future, that accompanied their party’s victory at the 1992 polls. If there was a certain amount of muddle when they started out – which is hardly surprising since they had been out of office for twenty-eight years – there was also a great deal of earnestness and good intentions, coupled with a genuine belief that they were there to improve the lives of the mass of Guyanese.
Citizens born since 1992, as well as those born a few years before it, will have no direct remembrance of those first years and the hope they embodied for so many; all they will know is what they have seen in more recent times. For those who do remember, there must be an acute awareness of the disconnect between then and now, and some musing over why the party became so quickly severed from its roots. Some of those roots, of course, were inappropriate to the new soils of the globalised marketplace, although meaningless lip service is still paid to them.
As older supporters see the wealth now swirling around the higher echelons of the party and their associates, they will recall the austere lifestyle of the leader and his wife, and Dr Cheddi Jagan’s promotion of a ‘dollar a year’ payment scheme for certain posts – never a practical suggestion, although Mrs Janet Jagan did represent the country briefly at the United Nations on that basis. The point is, however, that Dr Jagan’s emphasis was on service, not on personal gain, and under his successors that particular party ethic has been turned on its head.
There was one thing which Dr Jagan did not get right from the outset: he never evinced a great feel for talent and leaned towards those he felt were loyalists, or at least PPP supporters. For all his talk prior to 1992 of square pegs in round holes, he showed no inhibitions about appointing his own rectangular pegs in circular holes, not least in the ministerial department, where party stalwarts who had accompanied him loyally through the wilderness years were preferred over appointees who skills might have been better suited to a post. In addition, he made the mistake of opening himself to charges of vindictiveness by securing the removal of genuinely competent PNC appointees sitting on international bodies; perhaps it was a function of his insecurity, given his perception of Guyana’s political history, and his fear that the incumbents would undermine his new government.
Certainly, Dr Jagan never trusted the public service going back to the days of the 1960s, which is the genesis of the plethora of loyal, PPP-approved consultants who nowadays crowd the corridors of the Office of the President (among other institutions), at least some of whom appear to have little to offer in terms of advice.
Since Dr Jagan’s day, the loyalty principle has become entrenched, and sometimes coupled with the belief that this should be rewarded financially (something to which Cheddi Jagan would not have subscribed) some strange decisions have been made in terms of personnel. Just to give two examples, there was the posting of Mr Kellawan Lall as Ambassador to Brasilia, a bizarre and most unsuitable appointment; and now there is the case of Mr Raj Singh, who is slated to be the Chairman of the GuySuCo board. For a man with apparently few credentials to oversee an industry in crisis, and who in any case lives abroad and therefore must be ferried to and from here and provided with accommodation at state expense ‒ not to mention a hefty salary ‒ this appointment appears inexplicable. It has not taken long for the critics to home in on the fact that he is the party’s chief New York fundraiser, and so far the government has said nothing to dispel the suspicions about the motives for selecting him.
What would certainly have appalled Dr Jagan would have been the current corruption at all levels, which has become embedded in the social fabric and distorted the economy. There is plenty anecdotal evidence indicating that some of this is close to the corridors of power, and as far as the public is concerned, the ruling party’s seeming refusal to acknowledge corruption, let alone take serious measures to confront it, merely confirms their perception that the party and government have their reasons not to want to deal with it.
All this is not to suggest that the PPP/C does not have some achievements to its credit; it is merely to say that in coming adrift from its own moral moorings it has precipitated a crisis for itself, whether it recognizes it or not. No government in the modern era can go on indefinitely where corruption has contaminated its institutions and bureaucratic processes to any substantial degree; and no party can hope to sustain credibility unless people believe in the rightness of its cause – although there will always be those who join because of what they potentially could get out of the system. We are two decades past the stage where the PPP could trade on its wrongful exclusion from office by the PNC; Freedom House now has some serious ethical challenges of its own ‒ all of its own making.
The PNCR of course is even further along the road of becoming a shadow of its former self. The party machinery was probably already fairly degraded at the time Desmond Hoyte died, although that was not noticed then because he was such a dominant figure. There has been no one of his stature since, and while there has been a supposed move towards the democratization of the party, the allegations of rigging which have dogged it since 1968, have resurfaced in relation to some of the party ballots. Although now in opposition for two decades, the PNC has failed to take the opportunity to regenerate itself or move to more secure ethical ground with an acknowledgement, at least, of its fraudulent past. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has not succeeded in achieving true credibility beyond its traditional voter base, and even that base can no longer be taken for granted.
The two major parties are undergoing change, in addition to which they are losing their relevance in the novel conditions of the twenty-first century. As such, their ability to continue as the same major political forces they once were, is waning. The ethnic pull which both parties exert at election times is still there, although its effectiveness can be blunted as was demonstrated to the PNCR in 2006, and the PPP/C in 2011. As voters become more turned off by the parties, the turn-out at general elections will eventually decline further.
Whether either party is capable at the moment of effecting genuine reform is in doubt; quite often these things play out over a longer time-frame and may require more visionary leadership than appears to be in the offing at the moment. Owing to the structure of this society, in their heyday both entities were more than just political parties to their constituents; they were as well social organizations and to some extent social welfare organizations too. But those days have gone, and it remains to be seen whether either of them can transform itself in any radical way.