For decades, there has been a false dichotomy that has prevailed over Guyanese politics, that is between the two major political parties, the People’s Progressive Party/Civic and the People’s National Congress/Reform (now a major constituent of the APNU+AFC coalition). Although the two partisan groups have subtle differences, their persistence in politics has favoured them due in part to their respective historical contribution towards the development of the ‘Cooperative Republic of Guyana’, that has helped with sustaining their relevance in modern Guyanese politics. But how long can the two parties remain politically relevant? Can they keep up with the changing tides of public demands? What will be the fate of the PPP/C and PNCR in the midst of social and political evolution? I ask these questions because I think they can help us address some of the pertinent issues facing the state of democracy in Guyana.
Additionally, there is another pressing concern alongside the false dichotomy presented in the preceding paragraph. For there is also an apparent dilemma, one that almost seems perplexing if left unexamined, namely: For the next national elections, should the people of Guyana vote for the previous partisan government—the PPP/C—or do we cope with the challenges of the current partisan government, that is the APNU+AFC? Which of the two partisan groups is better? Which is worse? The concern here is warranted, and echoes repeatedly in our casual conversations with friends and family, even in the diaspora.
To dismantle the dilemma requires a bit of analysis of what someone might say to justify voting for the PPP/C, a party that had served in governance for just over two decades. The justification typically goes like this: “APNU+AFC government is really making it hard for everyone. Although the PPP/C government was terrible in many respects, I’d still vote for them because they were not this bad.” The implication is that the PPP/C-led government was ‘bad’ but not ‘worse’ than the APNU+AFC-led government. Of course, one might respond to this reasoning by asking “If the PPP/C was such a bad government, why vote for them again?” since it would seem almost absurd to do so. If we can agree that it is indeed absurd to resort back to a government deemed ‘bad’, then there is no dilemma. But if we believe that better was in the past compared to now (a farfetched proposition), the dilemma persists and as a result sustains the enduring political divide. Moreover, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that were the PPP/C to win the next national elections, electorates would then feel that the prior government would have been ‘better’ than the re-elected PPP/C.
However, have we spared a thought to consider what a better government should be like? Have we considered where we were and where we are over the past three decades of democratic leadership under the PPP/C and the PNC/R respectively? Have there been major improvements to date in policy, legislation, and infrastructure in the public and private sectors in a manner conceived over the span of three decades? How much has changed and how much has been left unchanged? Has what changed been for better or worse? These are questions worth deliberating, especially if we want to dismantle the apparent dilemma and the continued influence of a false political dichotomy.
I think we are so caught up in the aging and stale contest between the PPP/C and the PNCR that we seem to forget about the possibility of having alternatives. Obviously, there cannot be a lasting political divide between the PPP/C and the PNCR, as is evident with the evolution of the PNCR partnering and integrating with micro-political groups. The reality is that this structure will eventually collapse, and I believe it is fast approaching its expiration date. Some of us do not recognize that there are other ways to move the political programme forward without relying on the preservation of the current illusion in the National Assembly.
In Guyana, political mobilization for birthing new partisan initiatives tends to cling to one or more pressing issues. Simply put, what is of national concern becomes opportunity for the opportunists. For example, the non-profit organization RISE makes the case that constitutional reform is the solution to the many great problems of Guyana, including (oddly enough) racism in politics. Others, such as the Socialist Workers Alliance (SWA) point to political reform by means of establishing a socialist state as necessary to gain balance of power and wealth. The APNU+AFC stresses oil production as Guyana’s path to the ‘promised land’, while the PPP/C continues to back the state-controlled sugar industry and the cane-cutting tradition, a tradition rooted in colonialism. Of course, constitutional reform is vitally important and necessary, and so too are the prospects for institutional changes. Oil may very well lead us to national wealth, and the sugar industry may very well thrive under public sector management coupled with enduring labour intensive work. But when these issues are used as political fuel, they blight any real progress towards national unity and genuine change, and the capacity to rise above the challenges we can overcome as a nation. Eventually ‘progress’, ‘unity’ and ‘change’—all of which are, unfortunately, politicized terms—lose their significance and value. Nevertheless, what is undoubtedly without dispute is that in this opportunistic moment in the history of politics in Guyana we need sound alternative political directives to prevent Guyanese democracy from being subjected to arbitrary political will.
How do we discover political alternatives? Well, they will not magically show up, that is for sure. It takes much more than waiting around and much work to be done, both individually and collectively. However, there are two important components that are foundational: mobilization and conceptualization, both dependent on the other, albeit in most cases the latter should precede the former. We must change the way we think about government, society and how it is organized, and even the idea of citizenry. Here, the influence of positive and instructive political mobilization becomes essential. Moreover, such political mobilization would have to accept the difficulties and complexities of problems set before us; that there is no simplistic answer to everything. However, if the economy is in decline, social welfare programmes are poor, and the average household is faced with an enormous burden to upkeep its maintainability then good governance, regardless of who controls executive power, would continually strive to ensure that these aspects of social life become less burdensome for everyone without exclusion.
As a society, we can agree that the last thing we want is to be governed by a bad government. Thus, we must elevate our governmental preference. Furthermore, let us keep in mind that what makes a government ‘bad’ is based on how well we critically evaluate the people we elect and how civically vigilant we remain. Additionally, an already reputedly ‘bad’ government is unlikely to turn out to be a good government. If there is one lesson in the history of politics in Guyana that we can learn from it is that giving too many chances does not produce many worthwhile changes.
What it all comes down to is this: our political narrative must change. It must move away from the decades old political rhetoric reminiscing the awful deeds of the past while conflating it with the happenings of the present—a practice that invokes fear-mongering and stirring up unpleasant emotional reactions. This prevailing narrative has been sustained for far too long which has caused strife among Guyana’s diverse ethnic groups, therefore ruining ethnic relations.
Finally, I strongly believe that education coupled with sustained critical dialogue via debate or discussion forums, which are the democratic institutions we lack, can help us stimulate civic engagement and effective politics. But most importantly, we should realize that our collective political strength can change the state of current political affairs for the better, not for the worse. Terrible governments endure only because we let them. As a nation, we must realize that we do have choices beyond ‘red and green’ offerings. Good governance can only come with a change of attitude coupled with a determined mindset to want better. Guyana surely deserves better, but better can only come if we demand and work towards it together.
Ferlin F Pedro