Guyana is governed by a coalition of six parties—five of them under the umbrella of APNU. Three of the parties have little or no name recognition. While the other three are known nationally, only one of them, the PNC, has the capacity to consistently mobilize large numbers of people for electoral purposes.
The PNC has always been a formidable electoral machine with ethnic appeal to African Guyanese who have generally believed that, in our ethnically divided society, that is the only party with the capacity to electorally challenge the Indian Guyanese-grounded PPP.
Consequently, PNC leaders, the PPP leadership and many political commentators and scholars have taken it for granted that the PNC has total political control over the African Guyanese community. That analysis and the conclusions that are derived from it are at best simplistic. While at a general level, they explain the ethno-political divide in Guyana, they tend to mask the underlying complexities of the African Guyanese community and the larger Guyanese society. In any case, that simplistic analysis is not borne out by history.
Last week, I made the argument that the PNC is in a coalition with other parties precisely because it has not been able to win a free and fair election on its own. I also implied that the governmental leadership of the PNC is endangering the longevity and legitimacy of the coalition by governing as a PNC government rather than as a coalition.
Given the tremendous advantage of the PNC over its coalition partners in terms of electoral capacity, the challenge for the PNC’s leadership was always going to be how to balance the party’s “bigness” with the recognition that that “bigness” by itself cannot guarantee the party electoral victory. In other words, how to ensure that the PNC acts like a big brother without substituting itself for the family.
This challenge presented itself during the negotiations to form both APNU and the APNU+AFC partnerships. I believe the PNC leadership managed to restrain itself during those negotiations, which in turn led to the desirable outcomes for all.
The APNU or PNC-WPA partnership was critical in remobilizing the African Guyanese community in 2011. That community, demoralized by the extreme ethnic hammering by the PPP, had disintegrated politically. Some sections flirted with the PPP, some supported insurgency politics, many were demobilized, while others migrated to the newly-formed AFC.
This could be seen in the dismal electoral performance of the PNC at the 2006 elections, when the party managed just 34% of the popular vote. That meant that almost a quarter of the customary PNC votes went somewhere else. Hoyte saw this coming when, shortly before he died in 2002, he reluctantly endorsed power-sharing as the PNC’s route back to power. Corbin accepted that logic and pursued alliance politics, first with the PPP and later with the WPA.
While the WPA was never electorally attractive, its politics over the years appealed to four small but important constituencies that make up the independent section of the Guyanese society.
First, it attracted that segment of the population that saw multiracial politics as the way forward for Guyana. Second, it appealed to the “educated” segment of the society, particularly the African Guyanese segment. Third, it was attractive to that segment of the society that saw radical-revolutionary politics as the answer to the country’s problems. Finally, it appealed to that segment of African Guyanese which was wedded to a Black cultural-nationalism that went beyond Black governmental power.
While those appeals did not translate into votes for the party, they entrenched it in the political consciousness of the country, mainly as a source of political independence. This was what the WPA brought to the APNU equation. There were Black Cultural Nationalists, Black radical youth, Black multi-racialists and Black academics and professionals, some of whom went with Raphael Trotman to the AFC in 2006, who have never become organically attached to the PNC.
It was this independent African Guyanese constituency that formed the ASCRIA base that made Kwayana and ASCRIA competitors to the PNC in the decade 1964-74 and, along with independent Indian Guyanese, made the WPA an alternative political force during the 1974-92. The Burnham-Kwayana split in 1971 was essentially a split between the highly partisan and the independent sections of the African Guyanese community. Kwayana had brought the independent section into the PNC when he joined the party in 1958.
The PNC-WPA (APNU), therefore, consolidated the African Guyanese political constituency which was fractured by the Kwayana-Burnham split in 1971. The PNC top leadership led by Robert Corbin, which presided over the formation of APNU, was apparently conscious of this historical development and, thus, resisted the temptation to overly over-reach during the negotiations with the WPA. It should be noted that the formation of APNU was derailed in 2006 by WPA members and non-members who warned the WPA not to join the PNC for nothing. But that changed somewhat after the 2006 election in the face of the PPP’s barrage.
The APNU 2011 campaign energized the African Guyanese community. Everywhere the partnership went the energy could be felt. It was no accident that Rupert Roopnarine was the most electrifying platform speaker—the sight of an Indian Guyanese activist rallying and empowering African Guyanese was pivotal to translating message into votes. The PNC’s “bigness” gained credibility within the WPA’s radicalism and independence, while the WPA’s radicalism and independence gained wider legitimacy within the PNC’s bigness.
But APNU by itself, for ethnic reasons, could not win government. On the other side of the ethnic divide, some rebellious Indian Guyanese bolted from the PPP and rallied to the AFC. The ultimate catalyst was Moses Nagamootoo. Unlike Ralph Ramkarran, he decided to join the AFC and put himself up as an electoral challenger. Paul Tennasee and Ravi Dev had proved that like African Guyanese, Indian Guyanese could be lured from the PPP. Like the WPA, they could not translate their appeal into votes. But, in a sense they prepared the way for Nagamootoo who, coming from the belly of the PPP, was more palatable to the rebels.
In 2011, Nagamootoo’s AFC did to the PPP what Trotman’s AFC did to the PNC in 2006. But the AFC’s base was not ready for an alliance with the PNC. Just as the WPA had a lot of explaining to do for its decision in relation to APNU with the PNC, the AFC had to convince its supporters. Again, my sense is that the PNC leadership, conscious that it could not do it on its own, constrained itself during the negotiations. The AFC could convince Indian Guyanese supporters that with the Prime Ministership and a big chunk of the cabinet and the parliamentarians, they could not be over-run by the PNC. The rest is history.
It is my view that the restraint showed by the PNC leadership during the 2011 and 2015 negotiations has not been emulated while in government. The PNC’s has engineered a coup within the coalition. The PNC-WPA alliance has deteriorated since 2015, with the PNC governmental leadership’s stubborn refusal to treat the WPA as an actual partner. This, despite the WPA’s loyalty to the coalition. From all indications, APNU has been deactivated, thus denying the WPA a forum outside of cabinet, where it has one representative, for contributing to Coalition decision-making.
Without the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to policies and political strategy and tactics, the WPA is a non-player. The PNC’s leadership relates to some WPA members in their individual capacities, but shuns the party’s collective. Some WPA members have publicly questioned the party’s continued involvement in the government in such circumstances.
Thanks to the Cummingsburg Accord, the ease with which the WPA has been cast aside cannot be used on the AFC. But in the end, the AFC has to feel the same collective sense of alienation. The party has a lot of ministers, but it has little power. The PNC has used its numerical majority in Cabinet and the powerful presidency to monopolize decision-making on decisive matters. The AFC’s loyalty to the coalition has cost it the Indian Guyanese base that was the basis for its value to the coalition.
The PNC leadership has mistakenly decided to push the AFC to contest the local government elections on its own. The outcome may well expose the AFC’s vastly reduced electoral support, which would then weaken its leverage within the coalition for the 2020 general election. But it’s a case of the PNC being “penny wise and pound foolish.” A weakened AFC will lead to a weakened Coalition. A disillusioned WPA would lead to a weakened APNU and a weakened coalition.
The PNC would do well at the LGE; it will prove its electoral strength, but it would lose the elections to the PPP. It is a mistake not to contest as a coalition. The LGE was an opportunity for the Coalition to demonstrate that the coalition spirit was still alive. In the end, the strength of the Coalition is in its ability to convince independent voters that the collective is qualitatively better than the big brother that they are alienated from. They did that in 2011 and 2015 because of the WPA and the AFC. I repeat, PNC’s bigness is important, but by itself it is just a big opposition party.
With the coup by PNC’s governmental leadership (I deliberately make a distinction between the governmental and non-governmental leadership) and the inability of the AFC and WPA to adequately push back, the coalition has in effect collapsed. The independent vote could be lost in 2020. Those voters may punish the coalition not just for the PNC’s betrayal, but for the AFC and WPA’s inability to take independent stances since 2015.
I end with a challenge to the governmental leadership of the PNC: why don’t we—PNC, AFC, WPA—separately test our strengths at the 2020 general election?
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.news. Send comments to [email protected]
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