By D. Alissa Trotz
D. Alissa Trotz is Editor of the
In the Diaspora Column
A few weeks after the 2011 elections that delivered a minority PPP government, the Amerindian People’s Association, Church Women United, Commonground, Guyana Human Rights Association, Guyana Society for the Blind, Rights of Children and Red Thread issued a statement in which they noted that the “margins of victory are sufficiently small as to impose a degree of bi-partisanship and negotiated politics, replacing the rubber-stamp winner-take-all approach which has characterised Guyanese politics for too long. A mentality of compromise and flexibility is more necessary for successful minority politics and better suits the diversity of society. The election results open the possibility of revitalising political life; and of renovating political institutions and processes which have impeded progress in Guyana and frustrated too many of its citizens into seeking to live elsewhere.”
As it turns out, such optimism was hopelessly misplaced. Three years later, in November 2014, then president Donald Ramotar would prorogue the 10th parliament in order to avoid a vote of no-confidence brought by the opposition. Nor did the historic one seat majority win that was delivered to the APNU+AFC coalition government in May 2015 usher in a new spirit of compromise, despite their manifesto to the people of Guyana that expressly promised to “establish and entrench an inclusionary democracy through a Government of National Unity which would create opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the state, with particular emphasis on the areas of decision-making that affect their well-being.”
Fast forward to December 2018. At 8:22 p.m., I received a text message from a friend that journalist Gordon Moseley had just dropped a sixteen word bombshell on his social media page: “AFC’s Charandass Persaud votes with the PPP. Motion of No Confidence against the government is passed.”
It seems fairly safe to say that nothing but confusion has reigned since this outcome. On the one hand we have Charrandass Persaud, now safely (back) in Canada, who has issued a lengthy statement on facebook outlining the reasons for his historic yes vote that brought down the government, and who has since vehemently denied that his vote was bought. We have learned that there may be an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the MP’s vote (was he bribed? Was a crime committed?), as well as his departure (who accompanied him to the airport? Was the apparent involvement of Canadian High Commission staff in Persaud’s exit from Guyana a breach of diplomatic protocol?).
Legal minds have been weighing in, offering precedent to challenge the mathematical formula for a no-confidence vote and advising that the courts decide (What is half of 65? What is the difference between a simple, special and absolute majority?). The government has gone to court, but the basis upon which it has challenged Charrandass Persaud’s actions is that he is a dual citizen of Canada whose vote is therefore invalid. Many feel that this makes no sense, not least because Persaud’s Canadian citizenship certainly did not stop the coalition from selecting him from the list to sit in parliament and to vote with the government for the past three years. Moreover, we have since learned that sitting MPs on both sides of the house are dual citizens. Some suggestions that this is a move to buy time fits a narrative that the coalition – understood in this sense to be really the PNC in disguise – is trying to hang on to power at all costs.
Meanwhile, the PPP, fresh from its powerful showing in the local government elections, and via regular pronouncements from kingmaker, former President and opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo, is demanding that the government respect the no-confidence vote and resign immediately.
In a letter in today’s Stabroek News titled ‘The Imperative of Constitutional Reform,’ historian Clem Seecharan underlines a historic and fateful decision taken in 1953, whose effects continue to be felt today. As Seecharan notes, Eusi Kwayana (then Sydney King) was of the view that the PPP should not contest all seats in the general elections. Kwayana’s position, supported by Martin Carter at the time, was that for activists on the ground, it was clear that there was much more concrete work to be done to build relations of trust across communities, especially along racial lines. A focus on securing state power would take away energy and momentum from this work. Kwayana suggested that instead, the PPP should go after a few seats and use that mandate to continue its agenda of political education and mobilisation. But this was not the path taken. A broad based but fragile movement became just a political party, with the consequent loss of broad based popular engagement. The focus shifted to winning at a national level (this has continued, with an emphasis on winning at all cost), and with the breakup of the PPP into competing and soon to be racially polarised factions, the rest was history.
In an essay titled “This Race Business”, written in 1955, Martin Carter warned that “without racial cooperation in the face of imperialist power, we go nowhere. And that is the most significant point at this moment in our history.” More than sixty years later, that remains a significant point. Today we face political crisis and polarization yet again; one glance at social media discussions of Charrandass Persaud reveals how swiftly the conversation degenerates into race baiting and racial insult on both sides. The stakes today could not possibly be higher in terms of what we stand to lose and to whom. Exxon – not to mention other companies and investors, witness the recent report that former US ambassador Perry Holloway is returning as Senior Vice President of Guyana Goldfields – has moved into a country deeply compromised in terms of its capacity to present a united negotiating front. And a few days ago a news story surfaced that as part of its efforts to re-establish its global profile post-Brexit, the UK may be moving to establish military bases in the Caribbean, with Guyana named as one potential site.
What, then, is to be done? As Clem Seecharan rightly points out, Guyanese remain saddled with a constitution that “fundamentally fails to recognise that Guyana is not yet a nation; and that general elections are really ethnic censuses that tend to exacerbate the deep-seated racial insecurities of its peoples.” I fully agree with his call for a “totally new constitution” that will dispense with the political brinkmanship of the two main political parties, and put in place clear mechanisms that require coalition building. But it’s difficult to see how Seecharan’s suggestion, that this should be the item on the agenda of the meeting scheduled for January 19th between the president and the leader of the Opposition, might be meaningfully realised. Especially when we leave it up to the politicians to deliver the so-called goods. Of politicians, we would do well to remember the warning to beware the snakeoil salesman.
Let us ask ourselves, twenty-six years after the return to electoral democracy in 1992, what have the political parties delivered but six of one, half a dozen of the other? Trinidadian Lloyd Best said years ago, what we had at independence when the brown and black people took over from the white people was just an ex-change, not a real change. And we have been exchanging ever since. Consider these similarities. While in office, the PPP sold off ancestral African lands to establish Pradoville to house its political elite class, while presiding over the community strike and confrontation with police in Linden that led to three fatalities. Since coming to office in 2015, the coalition government rewarded itself with hefty salary increases shortly after it took office, then put thousands of sugar workers out of work, delaying severance payments and with no alternative plan to date. While in office the PPP administration defended the abysmally low numbers of African-Guyanese in diplomatic postings by saying that there were not enough qualified people. Since coming to office in 2015, under the coalition government, sitting Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence stated at a PNC Region Four meeting that she would only offer jobs to PNC supporters. While in office, then Attorney General Anil Nandlall (who is now purportedly a presidential contender for the PPP) was caught on tape suggesting that those who used newspapers to criticise the government might well expect violent retaliation. Under the coalition government, two columnists who had expressed positions critical of the administration saw their columns in the state-owned Chronicle shut down earlier this year.
These political parties are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps they deserve each other, but Guyanese, all Guyanese, deserve better than this. Are we not yet tired of politicians who will sell us any bill of goods to get their hands on the resources of political office? Are we not tired of allowing them to rely on our short political memories? Are we not tired of allowing them to play on our fears of each other to secure our votes, our loyalty, our silence?
Since the vote of no confidence, a new party, A New and United Guyana has been announced, led by former Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran, political consultant Dr. Henry Jeffrey, attorney Timothy Jonas, and businessman Terrence Campbell. The conversations begin anew in anticipation of fresh and early elections. Will this break the deadlock? Can they win enough seats to hold a balance in parliament (remember, this was the Alliance for Change’s initial hope as well. Look where that got them). Perhaps instead we should ask ourselves, can we really expect any difference to be made if the system remains rotten? We might also ask about the limits of announcing a party in this way, by four men, all middle-class, all urban, with no clear mandate from a broad cross-section of Guyanese across the country and diaspora. Is this really our biggest and latest hope?
Parties without movements. Parties not movements. This remains the biggest challenge we face today. Almost all of the conversations that have taken place since the fateful no-confidence vote have focused on politics as if it only exists in relation to political parties. I believe this is what Clem Seecharan meant when he identified 1953 as the tragic moment in our history in which a broad-based movement was sacrificed on the altar of political ambitions focused on winning state power.
We should be tired of kingmaker politics. As Guyanese we have mortgaged our lives and our children’s futures to political party. And as Guyanese, we need to ask ourselves where this has led us.
For us to get out of this mess, we need to reimagine and rethink how we are going to make political change in Guyana, by coming together at home and abroad. And it cannot be restricted to parties, or to who you support or how things bad now but they will be even worse if the other side get in. What kind of world is it when as Guyanese our choices are between less and least?
A movement of folks. Dressed in brown (the party colours of red and green combined). Our allegiance to this incredible land that we owe so much to. Holding meetings. Marching side by side. Meeting up in front of parliament. In front of Congress Place. Freedom House. AFC headquarters. Demanding these so-called leaders (for that is ALL they are) sit down and put the mechanisms in place for a Government of National Unity. Only we can demand and achieve this. For over 60 years, we have handed our power to these politicians. It is high time and about time that we begin the work, the necessary work, to take it back.