On June 18 through a post on Facebook, the former Toshao of Pakuri, Mr Lenox Shuman, announced the likely formation of a new political party. Guyanese have long experience of seasonal parties; they emerge from the political gloaming one or two years before a national election is due, and then they disappear into the murk again with barely a flicker when the poll is over – that is to say if they have not before then been absorbed by a large party. However, there is some expectation that this one might follow an altogether different narrative.
Mr Shuman and others are proposing an Indigenous party. He is not quite a pioneer in this regard: The Guyana Action Party (GAP), formed by Mr Paul Hardy preceded him early in the new millennium. As Mr Ralph Ramkarran pointed out in this newspaper on June 24, GAP attained a ‘measure of success’ considering that Mr Hardy did relatively little active campaigning. For this reason and others, and in concert with another political commentator – Dr Henry Jeffrey – Mr Ramkarran was of the view that an Indigenous party might do reasonably well in the 2020 election.
Guyana’s elections above all else are about ethnic arithmetic. While there was a little kink in the pattern in the last two national polls, essentially the old template hasn’t changed. It is the two largest groups in the society – Africans and Indians – which supply the constituencies for the two largest parties, the PNC (now APNU) and the PPP. The PNC could never on its own win an election; African numbers are simply not large enough. While once upon a time the PPP could do so – or almost do so – nowadays it requires the support of a sufficient number of Indigenous votes to carry it into office.
For some time now, the constituencies of both major parties have been in decline, numerically speaking, and that trend is unlikely to change. This places any Indigenous party which makes itself viable in a unique position. Dr Jeffrey was quoted as saying that representing ten per cent of the population, it “could help change the whole political process.”
He had in mind too, it seems, that constitutional reform would enable post-elections’ coalitions, an observation which has been made before. But that is the issue: maybe events are overtaking our politicians, since neither of the two major parties, despite asseverations to the contrary, has evinced any enthusiasm for constitutional reform. The relevant provision requiring amendment in this instance would be the one which only countenances the formation of coalitions before an election, not, as most nations including Suriname do, following one. As such, therefore, coalition government in our situation is made difficult.
Of course, it is unlikely that the relevant section would be changed except in the context of larger constitutional reform, which, as already mentioned neither of the two main parties wants, no doubt because both of them believe they can win the next national election on their own. To have any hope of doing that, however, even they recognise that they would need substantial help from the Indigenous vote, and while both of them have some Indigenous support – the PPP seemingly more than the PNC – both would have their expectations undermined by an Indigenous party which attracted a significant number of ballots.
Without constitutional reform, no one would have a majority in the House following the 2020 poll, and we would return to a reprise of a 2011 situation, with the difference that the new party would presumably be more cohesive than the AFC was, and would have a rather specific agenda relating to the Indigenous nations and the hinterland. It would then presumably negotiate its support on an issue by issue basis, unless it came to some informal agreement with another party on a suite of legislative matters. Whatever else happens, it would not redound to either expeditious legislative action, or, by extension, effective governance, and potentially could stymie government altogether.
The Indigenous nations have a variety of grievances, which the coastal parties have not responded to in a meaningful way. In his Facebook post, Mr Shuman enumerated some of them: “We are still begging for our lands, we are still begging for our rights; we are seeing townships being established without our consent, we are only 2%, we have an education system that is failing us; we are seeing a non-movement on Constitutional Reform, we have a system that is failing our Women and Children – UNICEF Report and the list goes on,” he wrote.
In an interview with Stabroek News Mr Shuman remarked that when “we come out and speak on behalf of the people on … the inaction [of the past and present administration], they look on us as being tainted with opposition.” He equated the performance of the current government with that of its predecessor, both of whom expected that the Indigenous Peoples would “be happy and eternally grateful” for the little handouts they receive.
The Indigenous population of the interior has never really been integrated into the coastal political system. They have been regarded merely as necessary votes who either have to be bought off, cajoled or bullied so they marked the ‘right’ space on the ballot paper when a national election rolled around. Most of all, they are seen as having to be controlled, which has been accomplished by various means, although the PPP was the most systematic about it. And Mr Shuman is not mistaken when he accuses both the previous and present governments of being over-sensitive to criticism which they associate with an opposition stance; it is a well-known phenomenon in coastal politics.
It may be that our politicians, mentally constrained as they are by their ancient habits, do not recognise that the Indigenous people are becoming more politically aware. At the ground level the village councils, whatever their myriad problems in some cases, have contributed to this, although there are some areas, like Region Nine, for example, where through the activities of the Regional Democratic Council, many Indigenous residents will have direct dealings with the coastal political system. Most of all, however, there is the National Toshaos Council, which was intended under the Amerindian Act of 2006 which created it, to promote good governance in villages and investigate matters requested by a village and make recommendations. Among various other things, it is expected to prepare strategies and plans for reducing poverty and improve access to health and education in villages, as well as prepare strategies and plans for the protection, conservation and sustainable management of village lands and natural resources.
When they were in office the PPP in particular were not of a mind to allow full freedom of expression when the Toshaos met in their annual Conference, from which the press was excluded. Perhaps this typified more than anything else government’s attitude to the Indigenous people. The Conference was altogether a government choreographed operation, although the administration could not prevent some Indigenous members from speaking to the media outside the hall. Where that is concerned, the coalition government has a better record; its failings – many of which are the same as those of the PPP – come in other areas, such as the Commission of Inquiry on Lands.
In that instance, Indigenous spokespersons exerted pressure, and the government did eventually make concessions. They should pay attention; it may very well be a sign of changing times, which intimidation and flurries of outboard engines whenever an election is due will not reverse.