By Donald Ramotar
The idea of changing the electoral system to PR arose for the first time after the victory of the PPP in the 1957 General Elections. At first, it was rejected by almost all.
It was mooted by Anthony Tasker who was then a nominated member of the Legislative Council. Tasker later became the head of Bookers operations in British Guiana. As a representative of Bookers, he had every reason to keep the society divided.
The British rejected it then, they felt that it was not the best form of representation. Burnham also showed scant attention to it at that time. It was raised at the 1960 Independence talks, but did not find much support. It is clear that the British had not yet considered it.
However, after the victory of the PPP in the 1961 General Elections, the call became persistent. Burnham fell in line after the British, having been pushed by the Kennedy Administration, finally gave in to the demand for Proportional Representation as the way to change the government in British Guiana. The records now released from the Foreign Office in London, show that they had decided to impose that system on the colony after President Kennedy’s visit to the UK in 1963.
While in the late 1950s and 1960s, the British supported Burnham instead of Jagan, and actually installed him, they did not totally trust him. Recall in Arthur Slazenger’s book John F Kennedy 1000 days in the White House, he said that he had agreed with the British assessment of Burnham as being an opportunist, racist and demagogue intent only on personal power.
That is why they wanted to keep him on a leash, to have him depending on them by forcing him into a coalition arrangement.
That British plan did not envisage the rigging of elections.
Burnham having assessed the international situation, felt confident that he could ditch his coalition partner and the British and Americans would not do anything about it because the alternative was the incorruptible, principled Cheddi Jagan and the PPP as the alternative.
He was right. Neither the US nor the UK tried to stop him from carrying out some of the most massively rigged elections in the world. Instead, they continued to finance him. At the same time with their silence, he was able to maintain a façade of democracy.
The rigging of elections and the growing dictatorial rule prevented the growth of many political parties, as PR characteristically encourages.
This was seen very early on in the period of the PNC in power.
Just before the elections of 1968, the PNC got rid of the United Force from the Coalition. By the time the UF withdrew from the coalition it could not bring down the government because the PNC had managed to control the majority of votes in the Parliament.
They did that by massive bribery and the encouragement of corruption of the Ministers of government, particularly those ministers from the United Force. The case of Mohamed Kassim the then Minister of Works in the coalition government is a classic example.
Mr. Kassim was from the UF. His Party leader Mr. Peter D’Aguiar who was then the Minister of Finance reported to the Parliament that Kassim could not account for five million dollars. He strongly suggested that the money was stolen. Mr. Burnham, the Prime Minister promptly got up and said that he had authorised the spending. Kassim immediately crossed the floor and joined the PNC.
That is how the PNC got its first majority in the National Assembly.
Before that, some PPP parliamentarians were also bought over by the PNC through a combination of pressures and enticements.
Having seen all of that manoeuvring, people knew that the PNC was about to rig the elections of 1968. As a result, no new party emerged. Only four parties contested those elections. They were the PPP, PNC, UF and GUMP, a fall from seven in 1964.
In 1973, elections again saw only four parties contesting. They were PPP, PNC, Liberator Party and a new party, the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM).
The Liberator Party was a fusion of the UF and a group called ‘Liberator’. It was headed by Dr. Gunraj Kumar, a prominent and popular medical doctor. The PDM was led by Llewellyn John, a former Minister of Home Affairs in the PNC/UF Coalition. He was key in the rigging of the 1968 elections. He fell out with the PNC and created his own Party.
In 1980, the contesting parties fell to three, the PPP, PNC and the UF. This was a demonstration that the situation was seen as hopeless by many who probably wanted to contest.
We began to see a change in the 1985 General elections. By that time Forbes Burnham had died. His successor, Desmond Hoyte, began to make some reforms, which gave the hope to some that the elections would have been free and fair.
The reforms included some relaxation on the press. In that period the Stabroek News was born. He also abolished Overseas voting a method used extensively by the Burnham-led PNC to rig elections.
As a result, seven parties contested the poll. They were PPP, PNC, UF, Working People’s Alliance (WPA), Democratic Labour Movement (DLM), National Democratic Front (NDF) and People’s Democratic Movement (PDM).
However, the hopes were all dashed. Desmond Hoyte’s PNC massively rigged the 1985 elections. It was the worst rigged elections in our history.
That defeat did not daunt the participants, they began to advocate even more vigorously for a return to Democracy. The opposition parties divided to unite into The Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD). The PCD was formed to pressure the government for real changes. It was making important gains. The Guyanese people’s resistance increased greatly.
In the meantime, the international situation had undergone some great changes as well. The cold war had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The combination of a united opposition at home and a new international situation in which the threat of “communism” was removed, created favourable conditions for change in Guyana.
The Republic Day message by President George Bush to Desmond Hoyte in 1991 clearly signaled that the US position on the toleration of rigged elections in Guyana had come to an end. That gave great hope to the democratic forces that the people’s vote would finally be counted.
As a result, eleven parties contested the 1992 General Elections in which the PPP/Civic emerged victorious, despite many predictions that it could not win 50% of the votes. Indeed, it won 53.45%.
Since then the number of parties contesting the elections were more or less constant. What has been changing is the fact that some parties have been combining before the elections. We have seen GAP/WPA, GAP/ROAR and later APNU in which some seven parties have combined.
This year we have seen a massive jump in the number of political parties on the scene. Many parties are emerging representing smaller and smaller group interest.
In an atmosphere of the possibility of free elections many are staking claims. To get into the National Assembly a party only needs approximately five thousand votes. However, that one or two seats can give that party much greater bargaining power than its popular vote. This would be so in a situation where no party or combination of parties gets fifty-one percent of the votes.
With Free and Fair elections, the second objective of the then colonial power when Proportional Representation was imposed began to become a reality. That is to have “weak” coalition governments in Guyana.
No doubt some, particularly leaders of the smaller parties, would see this as a good thing.
However, it could be the worst thing that can happen to our country, with the exception of rigged elections and undemocratic governments. Weak governments create instability and are a big obstacle to progress.
Remember that we will in the immediate future be an oil producing country. We will have to deal with very powerful international companies with revenues bigger than the Caribbean states combined. That group would have the resources to finance parties and ensure that the major companies have the power because of the parties they could control.
Weak governments and undemocratic regimes can turn our country into a playground and our people playthings in the hands of mighty transnational companies. More than fifty years later, we see the contours of weak puppet government in Guyana.
The best way forward is to have strong, democratic administration that seeks to build consensus to deal with international capital and to give Guyana and its people the best conditions for socio-economic progress.
Those who advocate constitutional reform should consider reviewing the electoral system specifically, joining with the rest of the Caribbean and return to the First Past the Post (Constituency) System as it is the best system to ensure strong governments.
History and experience have shown that only the People’s Progressive Party/Civic has the capacity to stand-up for the good of the whole nation.
A strong PPP/Civic is indispensable for our nation.
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