Our modern political history is characterised by bouts of intense conflict between the two major ethnic groups in Guyana – Indian and African Guyanese – especially before and after elections. It would appear that we are again headed in that direction.
Even though every local and international observer – not to mention the Opposition PPP and the 10 or so new parties – claimed that, on March 4th, RO Mingo of Reg 4 corrupted the count by inflating the votes for the APNU/AFC while ignoring the procedure of displaying the SOPs for transparency, 70-odd days later, GECOM still hasn’t declared a winner.
The recount, which has morphed into a de facto audit, has witnessed the APNU/AFC switching gears and narratives to move from insisting they won the elections based on Mingo’s numbers. While secreting their SOPs, which could corroborate their claim, they are asserting that dead and emigrant Guyanese have voted.
The claims seek to undermine the credibility of the entire elections, so as to demand new elections, preceded by the creation of a new voters list through house-to-house registration; or, alternatively, swear David Granger in.
That the increased frictions are correlated with elections offers a clue to their origin: elections determine who would “rule” the country.
This question became problematised with the introduction of the universal franchise in 1953. The old, primarily Mixed and African middle class-restricted voting pool was now enlarged to include the previous groups, in which Indian-Guyanese were inordinately represented. That an ethnic group – the Whites – had used its control of the state to determine “who gets what, when and how”, did not escape those waiting to step into their shoes.
In a brief moment, when all the nascent political forces were gathered in the PPP in 1953, they opposed the old elites, who were more acceptable to the White colonials. But with the split between Jagan and Burnham, that unity fell apart like Humpty Dumpty, and has never been put together again. The PPP was generally supported by Indian-Guyanese, and the PNC by African-Guyanese, with most of the Mixed cleaving to the African section.
This remains true by and large, even though, since 2011, it appears that a pool of “swing” voters – drawn from the Mixed, Amerindian, and middle class African and Indian-Guyanese strata – has now been formed. This is a very critical development, since the ‘old inbuilt majority’ of Indian-Guyanese has vanished, as the 2012 census showed. At 39.8% and shrinking, Indian-Guyanese are now a minority, along with other minorities: African-Guyanese, 29%; Mixed, 19%; and Amerindians, 10%. What this means is that: if either of the two major parties could demonstrate they have a national, rather than a communal, outlook, they could win a free and fair election.
The PNC, in coalition with the WPA and four other micro parties as APNU, still felt they did not present that national image, and coalesced with the AFC in 2015 to bring in the 10%-or-so of Indian votes the latter had garnered in 2011. Their strategy paid off, and they formed the Government. Even though the PPP claimed there were irregularities, they filed an elections petition and stepped down.
Most were surprised when the APNU/AFC Coalition’s policies were completely oblivious to the demands of coalition politics, and alienated both of the two non-traditional blocks: Indian and Indigenous Peoples, which they had brought aboard.
In this present election, it appears that the PPP was able to attract a greater proportion of the swing votes, which might have been attracted by its better record on economic development and competence (valence, rather than position politics). At this point, ethnicity is still the dominant cleavage in Guyanese politics, and the two major blocks still filter their politics through ethnic lens.
The challenge for the PPP, if it were to take office, is how it would address the fears of those African-Guyanese outside its support base. Based on its history and power resources, the PNC will not go quietly into the night; it is ‘gambling for resurrection’, and will take inordinate risks. We have suggested ethnic caucuses in its organisational structure; ethnic impact statements on its policies and programmes; and deep decentralisation to disperse power – going all the way to possible federalism.
But sadly, as in 1992 and 1998, it will take international intervention for the PNC to stand down.