Sustaining and advancing democracy for the New Year

In the critical years of the 1970s and 1980s, three major issues engaged the attention of my political colleagues – restore democracy, advance social progress and avoid civil strife. We firmly believed that Guyana could make no progress unless full democracy through free and fair elections was restored. Our analysis was that it was the lack of internal democracy that was responsible for what we then saw as the failure of the economic reforms in the 1970s and 1980s to lead to economic and social progress. The PPP saw this and gave a lifeline to the PNC more than once. The most notable was the National Patriotic Front under which, after free and fair elections, the largest political party would take the prime ministership and the second largest the executive presidency. The PNC would not hear of it. Even if democracy had not been restored in 1992, developments in the world would have ensured that by today we would have been living in a democratic Guyana.

The victory of democracy in 1992 has resulted in substantial economic and social progress for Guyana. But this progress gave rise to other problems. The incipient problems of corruption and lack of transparency and accountability exploded, with little effort to resolve them. Also, the intractable issue of ethno-political domination was put aside because of the unremitting, and sometimes violent opposition of the PNC, as well as some degree of triumphalism within the PPP. Attempts to work through and resolve differences between the PPP government and Desmond Hoyte and later Robert Corbin failed. The PPP government was mainly responsible. When the real opportunity of embracing unity presented itself in 2011, the PPP did not even consider forming a coalition with APNU. The reticence today of both parties in embracing constitutional reform which would diminish the impact of ethno-politics is the next hurdle the Guyanese people have to overcome.

The immediate obstacle in the way of promoting the dismantling of the political system that entrenched ethno-political domination is the danger of rigged elections in 2020. Guyana can make no progress without democracy. We went down that road for 25 years and it led to the Guyana’s virtual destruction. It was democracy that restored us. Concern is growing about the prospects for free and fair elections in 2020 and it has been aggravated by the contention over the selection of the chair of the elections commission. Enough concerns have been raised to have caused the President to assure the nation that he has never rigged an election and to have caused the British High Commissioner to comment that it would be necessary to keep a close eye on the conduct of the 2020 elections. These concerns must be supplemented by a determined movement to preserve Guyana’s democratic gains, for the benefit of all political parties and also as a basis on which further progress can be made to promote constitutional reform.

The other important objective of such a movement must be to struggle for an end to ethno-political domination by way of constitutional reform. There will be other issues such as transparency, accountability, corruption, the sugar industry, the economy, management of oil funds, social issues and others. But unless the drive for ethno-political domination is contained by constitutional reform, the political dilemmas created by the competition for domination will continue and a political system that is distrusted by half the Guyanese people and encourages corruption and the lack of transparency and accountability will continue. No matter who is in power, much of Guyana’s oil wealth will disappear into private pockets. Endless claims of discrimination in spending will accompany the expenditure of the remainder.

The AFC had been seen as the vehicle that would break the ethnic domination deadlock and bring the major parties to heel.  The AFC tapped into the burgeoning, mixed, middle class, initially socialized by the PNC through its absorption of the United Democratic Party (UDP) of John Carter in the 1950s. Growing larger, more sophisticated and more independent over the years, they became fed up with the sterility of ‘race politics’ and saw the AFC as the vehicle to end it. It attracted youth and a modicum of supporters of the main parties. Instead the AFC has become trapped into impotence in its coalition with APNU.

Driven by deep ethnic fissures and insecurities in the society and the competition for scarce resources, the main political parties are also trapped into reflecting in their work and policies the struggle for ethno-political dominance. In the zero-sum political system which has emerged from our history, major political parties have no incentive to end ethno-political domination. Fortunately, the end of the AFC has not ended the desire of its core supporters to be engaged with public affairs and has not ended the determination of many people to end ethno-political domination through constitutional reform. Free and fair elections and the end of the politics of ethno-political dominance through constitutional reform are the great challenges ahead.

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