Guyana in in the throes of a seismic change in its political culture, in which the very grammar of politics has been altered. In a classic statement, “Political culture is the set of attitudes, beliefs, and sentiments which give order and meaning to a political process and which provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behaviour in the political system”.
In the pre-WWII era, the very restricted poll confined politics to the small upper and middle classes. They competed for seats in the Assembly that was dominated by the Governor and his nominated representatives. The political culture was consequently very elitist, and the average man’s and woman’s concerns were given very little shrift.
The expansion of the franchise in 1947 brought in a wider pool of voters, and saw Dr Cheddi Jagan of the Political Action Committee (PAC) being elected from the East Coast Demerara constituency by taking a total grassroots approach imbued by socialist politics. This was a turning point in Guyanese politics. Jagan’s political culture pivoted the focus of politics from the incestuous century-old tradition of a tiny clique supporting the colonial order to one demanding changes in the status quo. The universal franchise in the 1953 elections sealed this change, since the newly-formed nationalist PPP secured 18 of the 24 seats in the Assembly and completely obliterated the older generation of politicians.
The demanded changes, however, proved too much for the Colonial State to digest, since they were more used to the gradualist, piecemeal, accommodative approach of the older politicians. The PPP Government was ousted after a mere 133 days. The Colonial State then manoeuvred to split the Nationalist PPP, and found a willing tool in Forbes Burnham, who had long signalled his compulsion to become leader at any cost. He altered the political culture from a unified stance against colonial dictat to one wherein political opportunism ran rampant and encouraged ethnic/racial support for the two PPP factions that emerged.
Burnham’s formation of the PNC by 1958 solidified this turn to voting along racial/ethnic lines, and led to heightened tensions between the two major Guyanese groups, Indian and African. Following the PPP’s victory under the leftist Cheddi Jagan in 1961, violence was introduced for the first time into the political culture of Guyana in 1962 by the CIA, to oust the former and install the PNC into power. That the parties now had ethnic/racial bases of support introduced the defining characteristic of Guyanese political culture, which remained stubbornly entrenched for the next four decades: ethnic mobilisation and violent election-related eruptions.
Burnham’s rigging of elections to remain in power, after he was ensconced in 1964 through an imposed change in the electoral system from First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) to Proportional Representation (PR), further cynically altered the political culture by eviscerating the central premise of democratic governance: “government by the people”. His “cooperative socialism” was merely an ideological fig leaf to cover his excesses.
Democratic governance was recovered 28 years later, after hard-fought free and fair elections in 1992, when the PPP was returned to office. But the political culture was again corrupted when the PNC refused to bow to the will of the people and launched violent protests following the 1997 elections, which segued into a decade-long armed attack against the state. By 2011, however, changing demographics had created a nation of minority groups, and a makeover by the PNC saw a new and exciting change in the political culture: the opportunity for moderating the political culture to encourage cross-over voting based of governmental competence. The PNC-led APNU/AFC government after 2015, however, betrayed its promise by practising the worst forms of racial governance and finally by attempting to rig the elections.
The electorate rejected them, however, and in its first 100 days in office, the PPP government under President Irfaan Ali has shown that a democratic culture is once again the guiding force in governance. Guyanese must vigilantly protect this gain.