In his most recent column (Give us a chance: To do what? Stabroek News October 9, 2019). Dr. Henry Jeffrey sought to make sense of part of President Granger’s appeal to his constituents at the recent PNC rally at Linden. Jeffrey zeroed in on the following quotation from the president: “‘Now my brothers and sisters, we are in government again. Eight years ago, we founded APNU and four years ago, we went into an alliance to form a coalition with the AFC. This is the first time in the history of Guyana that a six-party coalition has formed the government. We formed it because that is what the people wanted. They don’t want to see winner takes all. They don’t want to see one-party government. They got what they asked for. Look at our record… We deserve another five years to conduct, to carry on the work we have started…give us a chance” (SN: 06/10/2019).
Jeffrey took issue with the statement on two grounds. First, he correctly contends that the Coalition does not represent Granger’s and the APNU+AFC’s promised Government of National Unity. Second, he suggests that the coalition of parties is really a mask for African Guyanese ethnic vote for the PNC. It is this second conclusion that prompts my response. While I agree with Jeffrey’s view that African and Indian Guyanese electoral behaviours are driven by ethnicity, I think he has not given sufficient attention to the nuances that accompany that ethnic vote.
Understandably, over time analysts and analysis of Guyanese politics have become so trapped by this notion of hyper-ethnicity that we often miss other elements of political behaviour. In a sense we tend to start our analysis with the conclusion of an unchanging ethnicity rather than with an observation of the present and let that guide the conclusion. Because of the absence of serious and regular polling data, analysts and the media take refuge in this ethnic paradigm. So, for example, in this African-Indian, PNC-PPP paradigm, there can be no place for viable Third Parties. My party, the WPA falls victim to the logic of this paradigm. The AFC, after exposing the inadequacy of this paradigm at the last three elections, is now increasingly being perceived as ineffectual as the WPA.
I am arguing that there have always been nuances that accompany ethnic political behaviour in Guyana. Despite the electoral dominance of the two major parties and the ethnic sentiments that drive that behaviour, there has always been a plural political attitude within the respective groups. For all of the PNC’s reign 1964-92, it had to compete among African Guyanese first with Kwayana’s ASCRIA and later Rodney’s WPA for political space and allegiance. And the PPP has had to contend with similar insurgencies within the Indian Guyanese constituency.
ASCRIA, for example, declined to contest the 1964 election after Kwayana and Burnham agreed that such a move would split the African vote. According to a study by Edward Greene, ASCRIA and the PNC had overlapping membership. Between 1964 and 1974 ASCRIA functioned as a radical left flank of the PNC both through cooperation and confrontation. When ASCRIA merged with others to form the WPA, it took the confrontation to a higher level of competition during the period 1974-92. Both Kwayana and Rodney had equal standing with Burnham and Hoyte among African Guyanese, but it cannot be measured only in electoral terms. Kwayana influenced support for Burnham’s PNC until their break in 1971. It was Kwayana and ASCRIA’s critical mass of support that provided the WPA with its initial constituency which Rodney was able to broaden
In the post-1992 era the AFC briefly did the same in the 2006-2011 period when it reduced the PNC to 34 percent of the vote in 2006. The AFC, with Nagamootoo and Ramjattan at the helm then did the same to the PPP at the next two elections, leading the unexpected defeat of that seemingly unbeatable party. The AFC as the WPA did before shattered the rigid PPP-PNC paradigm by exploiting the plural sentiments within the ethnic groups. What is often forgotten is that Paul Tennessee’s DLM and Ravi Dev’s ROAR preceded the AFC in influencing Indian Guyanese political behaviour even if it was not reflected in their electoral performance.
I come back to Henry Jeffrey. I think his over-reliance on the ethnic PPP-PNC paradigm leads him to misread President Granger’s Coalition’s message to the Linden Rally. Granger was being careful and astute—he was speaking from the standpoint of an informed actor. The emergence of the Coalition has allowed for an accompanying re-emergence of political plurality among African Guyanese whereby they vote ethnically but arrive at the ballot box from more than one perspective. In that regarded, the voters vote race, but comes to that race vote from different perspectives. I understand how in the absence of data and by not visiting the communities Jeffery and other analysts could miss this development.
I arrive at this conclusion by visiting communities as part of the WPA’s groundings and through daily communications from individuals. I discovered, for example, from going into the communities that there is a critical mass of the African Guyanese constituency whose political thinking is in line with the WPA’s and/or is influenced by individual members of the party’s leadership, including this writer. This segment of the constituency is currently disappointed at the Coalition’s performance in government but are simultaneously anti-PPP. Hence the WPA’s message that identifies critical areas of advance under the Coalition within the context of a self-criticism that highlights the shortcomings is enthusiastically embraced. They are also receptive to a nuanced message that combines empowerment of African Guyanese and the poor. The direct cash-transfer policy, for example resonates with them.
Finally, this segment that cuts across gender and age-group welcomes the WPA’s apology for the Coalition’s shortcomings even as they crave an aggressive pushback against what they view as the aggressive Jagdeo-PPP juggernaut. The WPA’s message brings all of this together and the potential effect is not lost on the PPP and Ravi Dev. The PPP’s relentless demeaning of the WPA as being in an abusive relationship with the PNC and Ravi Dev’s observation of the WPA’s as a PNC flank group recognize the pivotal role of the WPA in the Coalition.
It is clear to the WPA that its resonance within the African Guyanese constituency is contingent upon the party remaining in the Coalition. To borrow from President Granger, that’s what the people want. One of my most applauded lines at the meetings urges constituents who are dissatisfied with the PNC and AFC to vote WPA. It is for that reason that the WPA has resisted suggestions from some well-meaning supporters to pull the party out of the Coalition—that is not what our supporters want. And I think the PNC and AFC are hearing the same thing from their supporters. The point here is that analysts who are unfamiliar with how the intra-Coalition dynamics are playing out on the ground are arriving at partly flawed conclusions.
The WPA has to report on its experiences or toot its own horn because the logic of the dominant ethnic paradigm locks it out of consideration by analysts and the media. That they could think that my constant media presence as an opinion shaper, for example, does not translate into some political capital for the WPA points to the over reliance on the dominant paradigm. I am contesting the coming election as part of the WPA’s leadership. The WPA is contesting the elections as a party that has something to offer Guyana—we are contesting as part of the Coalition. In the process we are putting WPA’s traditional values, its political culture and its ideas for development before the people of Guyana. We do so cognizant that there is acritical mass of people who look to us for political guidance and leadership and that we have the capacity to sway disgruntled voters who may otherwise choose to stay home.
Unlike Jeffery, I think the president was responding to this dynamic at Linden. It is no secret that both parties are doing internal polling. The president, I think, was partly responding to what he is hearing from his people on the ground and from his polling. First, by asking for a second chance, he was apologizing to his constituency. And as someone who has been apologizing, I can attest to how such apology facilitates an easier discourse with voters. Second, he was aware that he was in Linden, which is probably the most plural and independent section of the Coalition’s constituency. You have to sell the Coalition to Linden and the larger constituency even as you sell the individual parties. As President Granger opined, that is what drives them—that is what they want.
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