Development and democracy in Guyana

Back in 1959, the US sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset examined a wide global cross-section of nations and reported a strong and positive correlation between income per capita and democracy. And “modernisation theory” was launched: economic development linked with democratic governance by the US to counter the communist calls for revolution by the “proletariat” to improve the lot of the poor. Even though our early leaders balked, they went along with the imperatives of modernisation theory. While later studies couldn’t show any causation between democracy and development, the correlation sufficed to encourage policymakers to stress both factors.
However, Guyana’s ethnic voting since the 1950’s muddied the waters of democratic governance and its purported linkage with economic development here. The Indian Guyanese majority was assured of forming the government, creating an “Ethnic Security Dilemma” for African and Indigenous Guyanese in the majoritarian political system. The PNC and Forbes Burnham got a free pass from their African Guyanese supporters to rig elections and rule with an iron fist from 1968 to 1992. Free and fair elections in 1992 might have introduced democracy under the PPP but not stability since even though the economic situation was improved for all groups (as shown by internationally supervised empirical surveys) ethnically directed violence was unleashed by the PNC and African Freedom Fighters up to 2008.
With high differential emigration rates, however, the 2012 census confirmed that Indian Guyanese had dropped to 39.9% compared to African Guyanese, 29.2%, and Mixed Guyanese 19.9%. This offered insight into the 2011 election results where the PPP secured 48.6%; APNU, 40.6%, and AFC, 10.3%. With no single ethnic group commanding a majority, each ethnic-based party had to seek crossover votes or a coalition with the multi-ethnic AFC. The latter option was taken by the APNU in 2015 and the PPP was ousted by APNU/AFC’s 50.3% versus their 49.2%.
In March 2020, benefitting from APNU alienating AFC’s Indian supporters by shuttering 4 sugar estates, the PPP was returned to office 2020 with 50.69% versus 47.34% to APNU/AFC. Additionally, by 2020 when the PPP took over, oil revenues had started to flow and the prospects for the economic development of Guyana had become much rosier as the PPP stressed their better record in this area versus that of the PNC. They promised to focus on infrastructure and job creation while unleashing a welter of cash and other material infusions into communities. The question was what would the impact of improved economic conditions be on the ethnic voting pattern?
Back in May-June 2021, Vanderbilt University seemingly set out to answer this question in Guyana in a LAPOP “Pulse of democracy” survey of 3011 adult citizens. They posed the question as to whether they preferred a political “system that guarantees access to a basic income and services for all citizens, even if the authorities cannot be elected” them. In a nutshell, they were being asked what would Guyanese put first, “bread or ballots?”
The answer, which has been out a year now, was unequivocal: 65 percent of the population prefer “guaranteed basic income and services even if no elections”. And that percentage went up among the young, poor, and lesser educated. On a related metric of measuring governance style, 57% of those surveyed 57 percent of Guyanese – the highest in all the 22 countries surveyed – would prefer a “strong leader” in the government, even if the leader bends the rules to get things done. So what the vast majority of Guyanese want, according to the LAPOP poll is a strong leader handing out bread, whether there are elections or not.
The most intriguing piece of data is from the question, “How well is President Ali doing”: 41% of African Guyanese; 53% of Mixed Guyanese, and 80% of Indian Guyanese answered, “very good and good”. In the year since the poll, the PPP has intensified its developmental program and direct material infusions into communities – while projecting a strong Pres Ali. Meanwhile, the APNU/AFC Opposition has countered this by claiming that the PPP is favouring the Indian Guyanese community, and in fact is in the process of constructing an “apartheid state” in Guyana. Meanwhile, the LAPOP survey suggests that such views are not gaining traction in the African and Mixed Guyanese communities to reverse the PPP 2020 gains.
And might even be alienating some.