On October 5, 1992, with the return of “free and fair elections”, Guyana joined what the Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington had only the year before dubbed “The Third Wave: Democratisation in the late 20th century”. Referring to the initial wave in the 18th and 19th century led by the US and France, and the second in the decolonisation era following WWII, Huntington noted the structural factors that undergirded the third wave after authoritarian relapses in the preceding decades.
For Guyana, the external factor was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolised the end of the polarising Cold War between the US and USSR: the return of the PPP did not threaten the US strategic interests in the hemisphere. The internal factor was posited as the collapse of the economy occasioned by the PNC’s disastrous policies which led to a crushing debt burden. However, when the PNC retained 42% of the vote, the same percentage it had amassed in the last free and fair elections 28 years before, and the new party the WPA, which had presumably created a “multiracial” constituency was wiped out, it signalled that the old ethnic political cleavages had remained intact.
In 1989, the PNC Government, under the leadership of Desmond Hoyte, had accepted the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) from the IMF, in return for returning Guyana to solvency even though the loans acquired during the previous decades now totalled US$2.1 billion, with the accumulated interests. Guyana now had one of the highest per capita debt burden. Under the new economic regime of liberalisation, stabilisation and privatisation, dubbed the “Washington Consensus”, Desmond Hoyte’s PNC Government allowed the economy to return closer to its production possibility frontier, with concomitant higher growth rates.
The task for the PPP after 1992 was to complete the transition of democracy by deepening the substantive aspects as it related to the lives of the people. One area of its focus was “poverty reduction” and in this area, its success was palpable. In 1992, the critical poverty rate was 28.7% and the moderate rate 43.2% but by 1999, this had been reduced to 19.1% and 36.3% respectively. What was interesting, was in 1992, the poverty rates of African Guyanese were far higher than those of Indian Guyanese, but by 1999, the gaps had been closed. The poverty rates of the Indigenous Guyanese, unfortunately, remained stubbornly high.
Yet, against that background, the PNC accused the PPP Government of “discrimination” and after the 1997 elections, of “voters’ fraud” and set into motion forces that undermined our democratic transition. Elections protests segued into violent attacks on innocent citizens and the State by gunmen claiming to be “freedom fighters”, lasted through the decade 1998-2008. In spite of that, elections continued to be free under the PPP Government and economic conditions continued to improve.
Bharrat Jagdeo-led negotiations with bilateral and multilateral lenders had most of the debt burden written off and the funds saved were ploughed back into the economy which grew from a Highly Indebted Poor Country into a Middle Income Economy. For most of the first decade of the millennium, Guyana was the fastest growing economy in the Caribbean.
The politics, however, became more polarised, with the PNC insisting that, contra to all evidence, its African-based constituency was being discriminated against. In such an environment, democracy becomes more difficult to maintain since the moderating and centripetal influence of a “swing vote”, which bases its political choices on issues rather than primordial loyalties, is reduced. The PPP, to its credit, however, did not deviate from its value-free economic policies or its commitment to free and fair elections.
As such, it accepted the diminution of its support to a plurality in 2011 and to a razor-thin minority in 2015, when it became the Opposition. Since then, unfortunately, the PNC, in coalition with some smaller parties, has combined its polarising policies with a disregard for the Constitution, which further threatens our democratic transition.
The elections of 2020 will allow Guyanese to defuse that threat.