The return of democracy to Guyana in 1992 was part of a global movement dubbed by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, as the “third wave” of democracy following the first wave in 19th century Europe and the US and the second, following WWII. At the time, one local commentator cautioned: “the history of the previous waves should temper our euphoria somewhat. The transition process is not automatic – there are no irresistible democratic forces marching through history. At best, there may be a demonstrator effect. The process may also be reversible: democracy has proven to be a most delicate plant to nurture, especially in the inhospitable soil of authoritarian structures. The struggle of the people and the vision of their leaders have always defined the trajectory and rang10e of the democratic transition. Guyana will be no exception.”
The caution was prophetic but maybe not too surprising in light of the fact that the People’s National Congress (PNC), which had maintained its authoritarian rule through the rigging of elections from 1968 to 1985 backed by its iron control of the armed forces, was eased out of its illegal power through some condign pressure by the US. But it retained the support of its traditional ethnic base even though they had faced horrific deprivations along with other Guyanese, as the economy imploded under its incoherent and discriminatory policies.
The present travails of Venezuela are a recapitulatory object lesson of what happened to Guyana during those dark years: mass migration of the best and brightest; runaway inflation; collapse of the nationalised “commanding heights of the economy”; rampaging criminal attacks of citizens; deepening mass hunger and increasing intrusion of the Disciplined Forces into civilian lives. In the next 23 years, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) struggled valiantly to “fix” the ruptured institutions, especially in the economy – starting with removing the debt albatross of US$2.1 billion bequeathed by the PNC. At every step the PNC fought the reforms tooth and nail by accusations of “racism” in the PPP efforts. This only widened the ethnic schisms in the country.
The PPP yet steered the economy into a consistent growth trajectory – one of the highest in the region – notwithstanding the attacks which morphed into open violence after the 1997 elections, which the PPP won. This politically directed violence did not end until 2008 when the final incarnations of some Buxton-based bandits, dubbing themselves “Freedom Fighters”, were finally killed. These attacks placed tremendous pressures on State and civil society institutions and many distorted and corrupt practices from the PNC era, reasserted themselves.
But to its credit, through all the attacks, the PPP maintained its commitment to democratic elections. In 2011, because the Constitution awards the Presidency to the party commanding the largest bloc of votes, the PPP was able to retain that office but lost its majority in the National Assembly when it could only muster 32 seats to the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU)/PNC’s 26 seats and Alliance For Change (AFC) seven seats. Democracy’s strength was emphasised when the APNU and AFC coalesced before the 2015 Elections and was able to capture both the Executive and Legislative branches of Government with the same seat configuration, but this time with a combined majority of the popular votes.
And this is when the threat to democracy and democratic values appeared as the PNC asserted itself in the coalition Government and its leader proclaimed his commitment to fulfilling the “legacy” – see above – of Forbes Burnham. President Granger, who had been a Brigadier in the Disciplined Forces, telescoped his intentions when he appointed an overwhelmingly uni-ethnic Cabinet; Permanent Secretaries; and Heads of Departments, undergirded by a heavy recruitment of ex-Army officers into the State and Government upper echelons.
His most dangerous threat, however, came out his willingness to flagrantly violate the letter and spirit of the Constitution as exemplified by his unilateral appointment of James Patterson as GECOM chair and now his refusal to accept the verdict of the PPP’s successful no-confidence vote.
All Guyana must rally to prevent a return to the dark days of the dictatorship.