The introduction of the universal franchise in British Guiana in the 1953 elections, the competition to agglomerate votes in a society that was clearly “plural” presented challenges that went beyond the liberal premises of individuals voting according to their preferences in a “rational” fashion.
Because the plantation society had created identities based on race/ethnicity, orientations arising out of these divisions had to be addressed by the political parties seeking political office. Up to that point, a very restricted franchise based on income and education had resulted in ethnically-based parties drawn from the small middle class.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP), launched in 1950, attempted to bridge the divides of race and class by incorporating leaders drawn from all the various sections of the society and adopting a programme that rallied the people for economic and social justice against the colonial power.
They won a resounding victory which surprised them. Their policies, however, were seen as too radical by the British Government and after a mere 133 days they were removed from office. Subsequently, through the machinations of the Colonial Office, Forbes Burnham, who had been courted because of his academic fame in the African Guyanese community, split the PPP into two factions. Inevitably, his mobilisation efforts resulted in his attracting most of his support from the African Guyanese section and the politics of Guyana now took a decidedly divisive ethnic orientation.
In the 1957 elections, the PPP(J), led by Cheddi Jagan, defeated Burnham’s PPP(B) and repeated this in 1961, when the two parties had been joined by a new party, the United Force (UF), with support from the local business class and Amerindians, and Burnham had changed his party’s name to the People’s National Congress (PNC). Political mobilisation had now become almost totally ethnicised/racialised which remained fixed for the next 50 years.
The political system was then altered by the British Government from the “First Past the Post”/constituency system that was standard across the British Empire to “Proportional Representation” (PR) in a clear move to remove the PPP from office because of its leader’s “communist” proclivities. The PPP was winning not because it was commanding a majority of the votes, but because its mainly Indian Guyanese constituency was more evenly distributed across the country.
PR removed this advantage, because as the British Colonial Secretary said, it offered an opportunity to fragment the votes and give representation to minorities. He opined that the larger ethnic/racially-based parties would have to shift their orientations by moderating their ethnic appeals.
After the 1964 elections following ethnic riots that reinforced the ethnic/racial cleavages, the minority PNC coalesced with the minority UF to defeat the PPP which had emerged with a plurality but not a majority. Forbes Burnham and the PNC, however, refused to moderate their positions to mollify the UF and decided to rig the 1968 elections, which made a coalition irrelevant.
Guyana was now to be governed illegally by an ethnic minority party for the next 24 years that kept the ethnic divisions intact. With the return of free and fair elections in 1992, however, the PPP was returned to office on the back of its mostly Indian-Guyanese majority support. This created its own challenge to democratic governance, where all groups desire to be represented and most African Guyanese felt alienated.
By the 2011 elections, however, changing demographics – as attested by the census of the following year – had reduced the Indian-Guyanese population to a minority in a nation of minorities, and the PPP could only garner a plurality to capture the Presidency. Guyana’s politics had now reached the happy position where with minorities as their bases, each of the two major parties had to moderate their positions to garner supporters from across the ethnic divide.
In the 2015 elections, the pre-electoral APNU/AFC coalition won the elections and in the present 2020 elections, it would appear that the PPP has won by garnering “crossover” votes. We have finally reached a state for the first time in our history where parties can be judged by their performance rather than their ethnic base.
And this is what the PNC’s recalcitrance is stymieing right now.