At a pre-election campaign rally in Linden last Saturday, President David Granger is reported to have said: ‘Now my brothers and sisters, we are in government again. Eight years ago, we founded APNU and four years ago, we went into an alliance to form a coalition with the AFC. This is the first time in the history of Guyana that a six-party coalition has formed the government. We formed it because that is what the people wanted. They don’t want to see winner takes all. They don’t want to see one-party government. They got what they asked for. Look at our record… We deserve another five years to conduct, to carry on the work we have started…give us a chance” (SN: 06/10/2019).
In terms of electoral politics I am not particularly interest in what the PNCR and PPP/C promised their supporters for they are ethnic political armies that are largely unaffected by policy and performance considerations. However, undoubtedly, the most important issue in Guyanese politics today remains our finding governance arrangements that will significantly reduce the level of ethnic alienation. This the APNU+AFC promised in its 2015 manifesto and the President is now claiming it has done!
In 1992, 1997 and 2001, the People’s National Congress (PNC) won 42.3%, 40.5% and 41.8% of vote respectively at the national and regional elections (I have put aside 2006, when it clearly underperformed, taking 34% with very low turnout in its strongholds such as Region 10). Under new leadership in 2011 and in coalition with some small largely non-existent and/or ineffectual parties, none of which could have mustered more than 1% of the vote if they ever did run, the PNC went to the national elections as A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), and just about returning to the norm, received 40.8% of the vote. In 2011, the Alliance for Change (AFC), the other party in the present coalition government, won 10.32% of the vote, but the coalition’s combined vote in 2015 was marginally less (50.3%). The opposition PPP/C took 49.1% of the vote in 2015.
Generally, Guyana consists of two large ethnicities rooted in the African and Indian cultures that constitute over 90% of the voting population, with those of Indian ethnicity being marginally more than those of African ethnicity. The PNCR and the PPP/C receive the overwhelming majority of their votes from those of African and Indian ethnicities respectively. It is this 2015 electoral outcome and its associated ethnic political hostility that the President sought to sell to the people of Linden as having brought an end to winner takes all politics!
If numerically his conclusion is fallacious, its hollowness goes much deeper than the APNU+AFC discarding the largest ethnic group. Given the numerical weakness of the groups in APNU, the PNCR has been treating them with such scant regard so much so that the WPA felt it necessary to apologise to the public for its ineffectiveness in holding the government accountable and promised to do better if the coalition is returned to government. But regardless of how well-intentioned, this commitment has already been established as wishful thinking.
The Working People’s Alliance (WPA) has accepted and made public its commitment to struggle within the coalition for the adoption of an unconditional cash transfer programme of about $1,000,000 to every family in Guyana. It sees this money as being just about 10% of Guyana’s impending receipts from oil and gas. Even without studying it, the government has balked at this proposal. As if giving a cash transfer was ever intended to rival the country’s need to also utilise its oil wealth to establish state of the art health, education and other infrastructural systems, the president appears to have juxtaposed the cash transfer proposal against spending on education. It has now got to a stage where the WPA is saying that the coalition will lose votes if the government fails to adopt its proposal, but it must know that in this ethnic context, the leadership of APNU is aware that very few of its supporters will risk the party losing the upcoming elections as punishment for it not adopting the cash transfer programme.
Then there is APNU’s behaviour towards the AFC, which, because of its short-sighted focus upon holding and quarreling for office, has quickly transformed itself from king-maker to supplicant. Of course, king-making by a small party is not the answer to Guyana’s problem for it will leave one of the large ethnicities out of the decision making process, but it could have at least led to marginally better national accountability. Claiming that according to the Cummingsburg Accord it has with APNU, it has an automatic right to the prime-ministership, it has gone ahead and elected the party’s choice for that position, only to be now told that it has no such automatic right and that who is to be named to run for prime minister will have to be decided during negotiations currently taking place between the parties. Indeed, it has come to a point where both the AFC’s 2015 electoral performance and the competence of its ministerial cadres are viewed negatively, and these are widely touted as reasons why APNU can safely dump the AFC.
Winner does not take all does not mean simply handing out a few offices to some electorally ineffective parties. It means that no ethnic groups and their leaders should be in a position to take all, and there is little doubt that the PNCR is in such a position in the current coalition. President Granger and his government have not fulfilled their manifesto promise to institutionalise a broad-based government of national unity, and have thus failed on this critical front. The result is that today Guyana is as, if not more, polarized than it has ever been and faking the existence of a situation in which the PNCR is not taking all will fool no one.
It is said that the PNCR has not fulfilled its manifesto promise to form an appropriate government of national unity because its own proposals would have created a governance system that would have perennially placed it at political disadvantage. The fact is that other arrangements can be created that place no ethnicity or their leaders at a disadvantage. Then there is the contention that since the PPP/C spent more than two decades in office enriching Indians, the PNCR should do the same for Africans. Even if one accepts that the PPP/C has enriched some Indians, please note that this kind of enrichment policy, applied to Indians or Africans, would mean the enrichment of a group of elite Africans and Indians, leaving the vast majority on both sides in relatively poor and suffering conditions. What is required to deal with this issue in Guyana is not subterfuge but an open united government with a pro-poor bias and clear plans as to how to rectify the disparities of wealth and opportunities in all sectors.
The present government is a winner takes all apparatus, and has exhibited this tendency even among its coalition partners – which is not unusual when they are weak to a point of being electorally irrelevant. ‘Give us a chance’ to do what? In the political context the president has proposed, more will not lead to better. The APNU+AFC coalition does not have the capacity to transform Guyana into a nation and those with such aspirations must look elsewhere.