The President: assuaging moral anxieties

About a week after President David Granger made his controversial choice of Justice James Patterson as the chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission, which many viewed as signalling the PNCR’s intention to manipulate future elections, he took to the podium to speak to the North American Chapter of the PNCR in Georgia, USA. According to Mr. Tacuma Ogunseye, an executive member of the WPA, keen political observer and staunch supporter of the coalition government, the leader of the PNCR delivered a speech that ‘is likely to be seen as one of the most important and, to some onlookers, disturbing political addresses to the PNCR party faithful since he became President of Guyana in 2015’ (SN:10/11/17). In his presentation, the president asked his audience to focus their attention in the months leading up to the 2020 national and regional elections on “‘how the PNC gained office in 1964?’ … ‘how did the PNC remain in office and what did it do during that year?’ … ‘how the PNC (regained office) in 2015 and … how the PNC would retain office after 2020.’” (SN: 06/11/17) To say the very least, in this era of instant global communications and given his party’s sordid electoral history, something very important must have motivated the president to so closely couple the appointment of the chairperson with this statement.

I agree with Tacuma that it is difficult to predict what the president intended, but since, one way or another, our future is likely to be severely affected, attempt to predict we must.  Tacuma surmised that the president ‘is attempting to gauge the public’s response to a “strong inclination” within the PNCR to contest the 2020 General and Regional elections, outside of the APNU framework’ and ‘to push back’ against these pressures ‘that he may not be in agreement with’. The existence of such a ‘strong inclination’ would indeed be very worrying to the party faithful, for, apart from the period 1968 to 1985 when the PNC rigged the elections, never in its history has it won an election alone and it is obviously in no position to do so now. If the coalition wants to retain power, this ‘strong inclination’ must be coming from either a lunatic fringe or from those who have other means of taking the party to victory!

Furthermore, whatever gauging he may have done, on my reading, the PNCR leader did not ‘push back’. He did not leave his audience with clear arguments and recommendations in relation to this ‘strong inclination’ but instead provided them with questions that are more likely to cause confusion, particularly now that Mr. Ogunseye has helped to universalise the knowledge of the existence of this tendency in the party.  In any case, smart politics would have dictated that in the present political firmament the president should not further raise the political temperature by referring to the PNC’s questionable electoral tradition. To me, therefore, Tacuma’s explanation is wanting, and perhaps we can find a better explanation by considering the route to enlightenment the president suggested.

Most briefly, in the geopolitical era of the containment of communism in the 1950s, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi and Janet Jagan fell out over the leadership of the PPP, and Burnham established the PNC. Eventually, in alliance with individuals and smaller parties, the PNC, with the help of international capital that believed that the PPP was led by communists, had the electoral system changed from first past the post to proportional representation, which facilitated the PNC coming to government in 1964 with its ally, the United Force, founded by Guyanese businessman Peter D’Aguiar.  First to get rid of the UF and come to government alone in 1968, right up to 1985, the PNC rigged every election. When communism fell in 1989 and the West no long cared very much who governed Guyana, after much national and international opposition pressure on the PNC, fair elections were held in 1992 and the PPP/C came to government. By this time, for a brief period, measured by per capita income, Guyana was even poorer than Haiti and the country as divided as ever: the PNC which claimed it ‘won’ the 1985 elections with 79% of the vote was reduced to 42%.

So, in terms of electoral politics, what does this brief history teach? A PNC/UF coalition could have avoided the need to manipulate elections. After all, the UF had cornered the support of the growing Amerindian vote which, being in office would have allowed it to further nurture. The existence of an independent UF with which it could form a future coalition might also have weakened the PPP’s communist inclinations and lead to the development of a multiethnic democratic culture. Whatever his motivations, once Burnham decided to go it alone, he knew that his political survival depended on his playing a communist PPP against the West with his PNC being the only alternative. Utilising the geopolitical space accorded him; in 1968 Burnham rid himself of the capitalist-orientated UF. Once Burnham decided to take this route, in the West there was a silent consensus that apart from becoming an open dictatorship, the only way for the PNC to stay in government to protect Western interests was by electoral manipulation. However, as soon as communism fell the PNC became dispensable.

Relatedly, Guyana is now a politically independent country, there is no great global ideological divide and the stable ethnic majority that contributed to the PPP being a national and international threat is now more unpredictable. However, today ethnic security rather than geopolitics is the premium and the PNCR that always represented a minority ethnic group still had some Burnham type considerations to make.

First, if the AFC is allowed to grow, it would most likely take significant numbers from the PNCR. Secondly, the PNCR could not be certain that an independent AFC would remain in the alliance. Thirdly, if the PNC could easily conceive of undermining the AFC in any coalition with it, the more ruthless PPP will destroy the AFC and again lodge itself in government for some considerable time. Fourthly,  most – but certainly not all – of the national unity proposals suggest that in a PPP/PNCR coalition the latter would be the junior partner. Fifthly, if the PNCR act to prevent the above, it will have to be prepared to go to any elections with a coalition partner that is a diminished electoral asset. Sixthly, even if the political system remains relatively fluid, for decades to come the periodic changes in government will still result in the wholesale exclusion of one or the other ethnic group. Finally, having assessed the above factors, the PNCR considers it in its best interest to renege on its promise to form a broad-based government of national unity and again go it effectively alone.

The ruckus caused by the unilateral appointment of the chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission has given rise to moral anxiety and misgivings among a significant section of the society including very many PNCR supporters and it is more likely that Mr. Granger’s speech to the faithful in the USA was intended to assuage these concerns by appealing to the memory of the founder leader and requesting their concurrence. Given its composition and history, the WPA must be under more intense such pressure and this might account for its announcement that it will leave the coalition if the elections are rigged, and one must hope that its leaving would not happen after the fact.

The vast majority of Guyanese want to live and prosper in peace and security. If, as the president suggested, the faithful consider objectively the PNC’s electoral history, contrary to what he believes, they will conclude that it served Guyana badly. I have said a great deal about the similar backwardness of the PPP and thus the choice before all of us is whether to be perpetually manipulated into a political cul-de-sac by self-serving traditional party oligarchs or demand and work towards the immediate establishment of an equitable and transparent political system that guarantees all our freedoms and the good life.

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