There are two developments that took place recently in the politics of the country which have prompted me to write this letter. The first is the PNCR’s call for a new house-to-house registration, which is intended to ensure that we have a sanitised national register of registrants list, and ultimately a voters list which Guyanese can be proud of, and secondly, the private criminal charges brought by the opposition PPPC against a number of government ministers. These developments seem to suggest that our current political leadership on both sides of the divide is reading from the historical political playbook, and is, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to recreate the past in the present.
For some time the PPPC has been raising questions about the integrity of the database which Gecom possesses and the need for it to be sanitized, in order to have an accurate voters’ list before elections are held. The ruling APNU+AFC had refused to be drawn into public polemics on the call of the opposition for sanitization of the database. However, it subsequently changed its tactic from one of silence, and announced the need for house-to-house registration and verification. This has drawn from the PPPC a prompt rejection, claiming that the intention is to derail local government elections scheduled for later this year and to influence the outcome of the general and regional elections scheduled for 2020 in favour of the ruling coalition. This new position of the PPPC is out of sync with the one that party held in 2016 when it was agreed at the level of Gecom that because the last house to house registration was done in 2006 there would be a new one before the 2020 general and regional elections.
I recall that in the ‘70s the PPP in opposition, had waged an intensive campaign both at home and overseas, for the voting age to be changed from 21 years to 18 years. The then ruling PNC/Burnham government, in the run-up the 1972 general and regional elections surprised the PPP and the nation and announced that the voting age would be changed to 18 years. Dr Jagan and the PPP, faced with Burnham’s embrace of Jagan’s demand, changed their position and rejected the government’s offer. Their flip-flop on the issue of the reduction of the voting age is similar and consistent with their position today, on the issue of a new house to house registration.
The older generation of Guyanese will remember that Dr Jagan and the PPP chose Linden, the stronghold of the ruling party as the place for their first public meeting to explain their objections to the announced intended change of the voting age. One would have expected that the PPP’s primary responsibility was to its constituency and that it would have gone to a place like Port Mourant, in order to galvanise support for its objections to Burnham’s announcement. Instead, Jagan chose to launch his offensive in a community where he knew he had very little support. The question here is why did Jagan go that route? Dr Jagan was very deliberate in his choice of Linden for that meeting. He based his decision on the known political reality, that keeping a public meeting at that time in Linden would have provoked the PNC and Burnham, and that the meeting would been attacked violently and broken up. This was exactly what happened, giving Jagan the rallying cry he needed to re-energize his support base in light of his dramatic change on the issue of the voting at age of 18 years, which he had for years been demanding.
Burnham and the PNC responded to Jagan’s rejection in a similar way. Instead of going to their support base, they held their first meeting in Enmore on the East Coast, which is a stronghold of the PPP and a community where the PNC had little or no support. Why? Like Jagan, Burnham knew what was the real politics of his decision. Having beaten and broken up the PPP meeting in Linden he deliberately courted the PPP to do likewise. They did not disappoint him. Like Linden, the response was bloody. In a violent, conflict situation both leaders got what they wanted, an energized base to contest the elections.
I am using this opportunity to alert the nation and Guyana’s current political leadership, on both sides of the divide, that while there may be useful lessons to be drawn from the incidents I have alluded to, in our historical playbook there are some that are not worthy of duplication.
My next concern is with the decision of the opposition PPPC to file private criminal charges against government ministers. The resort to filing private criminal charges to achieve a political objective is not new and was used with great effect by Mr Eusi Kwayana in the politics of the country, on at least two occasions. He did so in the instance of Walter Rodney’s assassination when he filed criminal charge against GDF Sergeant, Gregory Smith. He again did so when he brought private criminal charges against well-known PPP supporter ‘Beast’, who hailed from Enmore and was found by the police to have in his possession a quantity of arms, which included highly sophisticated weaponry and a large cache of ammunition. The point to note here is that Kwayana’s private ciminal charges against ‘Beast’ were triggered by the failure of the police to charge him. The view in Guyana and abroad is that the ruling political directorate intervened and ordered the police not to lay criminal charges against one of their own. Readers, will I am sure recall, that, in the face of and in spite of the damning evidence presented by Kwayana at Beast’s trial at the Cove and John Magistrates court, the then DPP, Dennis Hanoman-Singh instructed the presiding Magistrate to discontinue hearing the case.
Following on Kwayana’s example in more recent times, Mr Christopher Ram adopted the same tactic and instituted private criminal charges against former President and PPPC leader Bharrat Jagdeo.
It is clear that the PPPC leadership has decided to invoke the historical political playbook by bringing charges against government ministers, by exploiting precedence, while attempting to energize its support base for a showdown with the government over criminal charges against their leaders and former government functionaries. The present tactics of the PPPC – tit-for-tat, is politically similar to that used by Jagan and Burnham in dealing with the challenges they were faced with in the ‘70s. The goals for the PPPC are to ensure that the charges are not heard in court, and to deepen the polarising political effects.
The political leadership in both the APNU+AFC and the PPPC in reopening the historical political playbook, are recreating the past in our present reality. While the playbook can inform us of what happened in the past, it offers no assurances of what the future holds.