THE political temperature in Guyana has risen to high levels since the reassignment of Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine to another ministry. This is not the first reassignment of a minister by the current government—there have been at least four such changes. So, one must ask why this one has generated such sharp debate to the point where there is speculation about the future of the governing coalition as a cohesive force. The answer is simple, though not obvious to most of the members of the current political class and opinion shapers.
The Roopnaraine removal from the Ministry of Education raises anew old questions of governance and political praxis in Guyana. The most important question, in this regard, has to do with the management of political power—how leaders treat with the enormous power vested in them by the constitution and by the votes of their supporters. One of the persistent failures of our independence has been the unwillingness and perhaps inability of our political leaderships to adhere to and sustain a democratic approach to governance. The consequence has been disastrous for our country—our persistent economic underdevelopment and brutal politics are largely grounded in this national impediment.
There are several reasons for this failure at democratic practice, but the one that I want to zero in on in this column is our collective construction of a narrow politics of electoral arithmetic. How many times have we heard the mantra of big parties and small parties based exclusively on the number of votes garnered at elections? Political usefulness and relevance are calculated based on the number of votes a party could get at elections. True, a party’s electoral strength is a big part of its influence, but the mistake we make in Guyana is to believe that it is the only measure of influence and strength.
That narrow definition of political strength has led us down a slippery slope. We know from experience in Guyana that parties with big numbers are small in terms of integrity, vision and adherence to democratic norms. It is not that these parties are inherently incapable of these qualities, but there is no incentive for them to do so.
After all, they have the numbers and we tell them in our commentaries and analyses and in our collective defence of their vices that they are big and that that is all that matters.
How many times have we complained of the demerits of our big parties? It is our big parties which have individually and together held our country back, taken it to the brink of disaster after disaster and made us the socio-economic and political basket-case that we are. These parties have continued to facilitate our underdevelopment, precisely because we empower them to do so with our narrow definition of what political strength and influence are and they in turn have come to believe that that is natural law.
In the big-party scenario, small parties are rendered useless and irrelevant—they are pushed to the sidelines. If they persist, their obituaries are written every day. In Guyana, over the years, we have seen many small parties come and go. That reinforces the theory and practice of the two-big party system. Such a scenario makes political commentary and analyses easy—everything is reduced to PPP vs PNC. There is no need to dig deeper to answer challenging questions about our politics and society—just explain it as PPP and PNC. That is the reason we often hear the silly and simplistic solution to Guyana’s political problems—get rid of the PPP and the PNC.
When the WPA rose to prominence in 1979, it disturbed the big-numbers theory. Suddenly, a party without numbers was shaking the foundations of the status quo. The very people who just a few years before voted for the big-numbers parties were listening and endorsing a small-numbers party. The top rulers of the day took the decision to assassinate the person they estimated was the top leader of the WPA. In the wake of that unpardonable act that would forever haunt our political soul, the WPA became a full-fledged political party by building party groups and party structures and continuing the struggle to remove the dictatorship of the day. Yet, if you listen to the scribes and political high-priests, the WPA died when Rodney died. That narrative ignores the fact that when Rodney was killed the WPA was not a well-organised party. But to say that the WPA died with Rodney allows us to continue to advance the big-numbers theory.
Almost 40 years later, the WPA is still here—its structures are much weaker and its membership much smaller, but it retains a voice that refuses to go away. Of the Anglophone Caribbean left- wing radical parties which emerged in the 1970s, it is the only one that still exists. It took the controversial decision in 2011 to enter a coalition with the PNC in the face of the fast deterioration of the country into a criminalised state. It was an integral part of the APNU partnership that contested the elections of that year. It brought political integrity and enormous skill to the partnership in every area of political preparation and work. Rupert Roopnaraine was the platform mobiliser-in-chief, using his oratorical skills and appeal to rally the base and beyond.
In the end, the APNU got 41% of the popular vote which was 7% more than the PNC got at the previous election. One will never know which party brought that extra 7% of the vote, but one thing is certain — the voters voted for the APNU of which the WPA was a part. The 2015 results followed the pattern of the 2011 election with 4,000 votes flipping to the coalition which enabled it to win the presidency. There is speculation that the AFC core ethnic constituency of 2011 declined in 2015, but that was offset by an increase in APNU votes. It is my view that what the AFC lost in numbers, it made up for by its contribution to the sense of optimism that drove APNU voters to the poll.
My point is that there is more to our politics than numbers. The PNC is the big-numbers party in the coalition, but it is safe to say that, for ethnic and other political reasons, it cannot win a majority on its own. As we saw in 2006, the PNC even lost approximately 15% of its electoral support and it took the APNU to recapture those votes. As a coalition, the parties are not fighting one another for votes, they are pooling their strengths to maximise the electoral strength of the collective. While we can count votes, we are not able to quantify what it takes to get those voters to the polls—the rhetoric, the vision, the platform, the emotional connection, the optimism, the hope, the intellectual capital, the reasoning, the credibility, the messaging and the integrity.
What does all of this have to do with Dr. Roopnaraine’s removal from the Education Ministry? It is my considered view that the lack of consultation with the WPA on the matter arose out of the big-party mindset. I refuse to believe that the shift of Cathy Hughes to her present ministry was not discussed with the AFC beforehand. Of course, the AFC is protected by the Cummingsburg Accord. I refuse to believe that the removal of Dr. George Norton from the Ministry of Public Health was not discussed with the PNC hierarchy beforehand.
So why the different approach when it comes to Roopnaraine and the WPA? In the wake of President Burnham’s death, the new PNC leader, former President Hoyte, signalled his party’s approach to the WPA by declaring that the WPA must be contained. It was a shift from the Burnhamist approach of elimination to one of containment. Containment in politics means keeping an adversary deemed to be harmful and hostile under control or within limits
I think the present leadership of the PNC has invoked the theory of containment as far as dealing with the WPA is concerned. My view is that there is an acknowledgement that the WPA is needed for respectability, the appearance and reality of unity which is essential to holding the base together and its intellectual energy, which still holds currency in our politics. But, given the WPA’s tradition of radicalism and independent action, they must be contained—they cannot be allowed to radicalise power, gain influence among the traditional PNC base and upstage the PNC.
On that score, the PNC and AFC find common ground as the AFC is hostile to radical politics. Hence the sidelining of the WPA. And the big-numbers theory is central to that sidelining. Ironically, the WPA’s caution, its political maturity and its fear of being blamed for the failure of the coalition may have facilitated its containment in the first two years of the government.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org