The selection by the PPP/C of Ambassador Elisabeth Harper as its prime ministerial candidate for the forthcoming general elections must rank as one of the biggest political surprises in the independence history of the country. Having served as Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years, Mrs Harper has won plaudits for her performance and exudes an air of confidence, efficiency and grace. Decamping from the rarefied atmosphere of the diplomatic world, behind-the-scenes negotiating and protocol for the rough and tumble hustings of the political stage and countrywide campaigning will however be quite a stretch.
Mrs Harper must have been the subject of very persuasive discussions in recent weeks to have convinced her to switch careers considering that she doesn’t have much time to prepare for an unaccustomed role. The PPP/C’s decision to offer her this role and her acquiescence must be welcomed as an advance for women in particular and the political culture. In the coming weeks, the public expects to hear from Mrs Harper herself on the thinking behind her decision and her vision for the country were she to become Prime Minister.
The selection of Mrs Harper means that the long service of Samuel Hinds as PM with a brief but crucial stint as President following the death of Dr Jagan in 1997 has come to an end. He deserves praise and thanks for serving his country with dignity these many years.
Both sides have now laid their aces on the table and the election campaign will now gather momentum. With the weight of incumbency, diminishing support at the polls and myriad controversies besetting it, all eyes were on the PPP/C in relation to its top two choices. It appeared to have no option in relation to President Ramotar, who despite his uninspired and lacklustre performance over the last three years could not be ditched without creating further internal divisions. Adding value to the ticket really came down to the number 2 position, the prime ministership.
In 1992 and for several succeeding elections, the PPP/C didn’t need the PM to be a vote getter but simply to provide ethnic balance and a notional sense of a civic alliance. The PPP/C essentially won those elections on demographics but things began changing in 2006 and more drastically in 2011 when the party lost its majority in Parliament. The PPP/C would have rued going into the 2011 elections with Messrs Ramotar and Hinds considering the changed circumstances on the ground and the fact that the PM was not sufficiently removed from the PPP to draw in votes on his own, neither did he have a constituency to bring to the table. In the 2011 elections, the PPP desperately needed a vote-getter in the second spot and a fresh face but pretended otherwise. It is clearly not prepared to make that same mistake again.
With a squeaky clean public image can Mrs Harper deliver votes in 2015 to the PPP/C? Initially it was thought that the PPP/C would settle for Mrs Harper’s boss, Foreign Affairs Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett for the number two spot as it was felt that she could draw support from the key swing vote – the Amerindian community. This might have been even more important now as three recent incidents in different Amerindian communities in Region Nine have raised questions about the paternalistic behaviour of the government to the indigenous people and also soured ties. The PPP/C appears to have calculated that it may be in a safe position with the Amerindian communities through its aggressive distribution of largesse and that it was probably more important to inject gender balance and make an attempt at attracting Afro-Guyanese support, hence Mrs Harper’s selection.
Outside of Takuba Lodge, Mrs Harper is virtually unknown to the Guyanese public. She has no constituency of her own and with little to recommend her for platform politics. On a PPP/C ticket, can she reach out and connect to women and others who might have voted traditionally for the PNC/PNCR/APNU? This would be an exceedingly difficult task in the time left before the elections and having to do so while defending the PPP/C’s poor record and without diplomatic niceties. Will the PPP/C declare particular responsibilities which would be assigned to Mrs Harper if she was to become PM?
General Secretary Rohee at the presentation of Mrs Harper stated that she was a representative of civil society, ostensibly so the PPP/C could keep up the fiction that it is in a genuine civic alliance. Even so, Mrs Harper could not be considered a member of civil society as she has served as a top civil servant in the government for many years with all that entails. Perhaps what Mr Rohee really meant to transmit was that as the potential Prime Minister, Mrs Harper would be ineligible to be considered for the presidency in keeping with the tenets of the 1992 PPP/Civic alliance where the presidency was for the PPP and the prime ministerial position for the Civic segment.
There is a decidedly geriatric feel to both tickets. All four candidates are middle-aged and beyond. It doesn’t seem that in their calculations that either side recognized the importance of reaching out to the 18 to 35 cohort by including a younger candidate. Hopefully, they are investing in social media campaigning to reach this group and engaging in fertile and detailed discussions of plans rather than just the usually slagging off and cursory exchanges.
Of the four candidates on the two tickets, only the opposition coalition’s Mr Moses Nagamootoo comes across as the natural politician with flair and pizzazz. Mr Ramotar cuts a dull figure and will not enliven proceedings much. APNU’s David Granger still appears very uncomfortable and stiff despite this being his second turn on the campaign trail. It is left to be seen if Mrs Harper can spring a surprise on the political stage.
Now that both tickets have been settled, it is hoped that there will be swift publishing of their manifestoes/programmes for the public to judge.