Aug 14, 2020 Editorial
In the pre-independence era, there was no sharper person in the legislature than then leader of the opposition in what was then the Legislative Council, founder of the People’s National Congress (PNC), Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. He was the most dogged interrogator of the policies of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government of Cheddi Jagan of the late fifties, mixing masterful rhetoric with a keen intelligence on specifics, whether analyzing expenditure or policy.
As he outlined in his Budget Debate presentation of January 29, 1958: “The duty on this side of the Chamber is not to indulge in platitudes and promises to support the Government when any measure for the benefit of the country comes up; that goes without saying. It is the main duty of the “Opposition”, as I see it, in spite of the paranoiac tendencies of the present Government, to expose every flaw of Government and to show the people where the Government has fallen down.”
Before the end of the month, Guyana’s 12th Parliament will be sworn in with Mr. Burnham’s party once again finding itself in opposition after a brief and disastrous single term in office. With 19 ministers of the executive already sworn in, we already have a sound idea of what the PPP’s government frontbench is going to be – while the new government has demonstrated a clear commitment to youth representation, and while there is some ethnic diversity, the remainder of its 33-seat parliamentary representation needs to demonstrate more meaningful inclusion of women, and definitely more Indigenous representation.
This leaves us with the Parliamentary Opposition. The joinder list of The New Movement (TNM), A New and United Guyana (ANUG), and Liberty and Justice Party (LJP) has already selected the representative for its single seat, LJP leader Lenox Shuman. It will be interesting to see, going forward, how the tripartite list wields its single seat and to what practical effect since the government possesses a parliamentary majority necessary for carrying out its legislative agenda.
The APNU+AFC has won a not insignificant number of seats in the elections, with a reduction of the combined 33 seats of both 2011 and 2015 by just two. This on the surface of it does not appear to be an insurmountable loss come 2025, with the logical strategy being the growth of the individual component parties over the next five years, paired with an opposition legislative doggedness like that of Forbes Burnham in 1958. This would be in keeping with former President David Granger’s commitment to what he called the ‘Big Benab’, a place for any political party interested in coalition politics as opposed to the politics of the monolith that we have been accustomed to since the pre-independence era.
Instead, there have been clear signals from Granger that he intends to head in the opposite direction. To be fair, the preliminary signals were already there, particularly with his treatment of the other members of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU). In case one needed reminding, APNU is itself a coalition of five parties – the People’s National Congress (PNC), the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), the Justice For All Party (JFAP), the Guyana Action Party (GAP) and the National Front Alliance (NFA).
As early as 2017, Dr. David Hinds and Tacuma Ogunseye of the WPA had publicly complained that the party had been sidelined in executive decision making since the coalition had come into power in 2015 and that APNU had not held a substantive meeting for some time in order for concerns to be aired. And of course, last year, there was Granger’s awkward tussle with his major partner, the Alliance For Change, regarding the terms of the coalition’s renegotiated agreement, the Cummingsburg Accord. Coming out of that fiasco was a secret compact which spoke to, in terms of the legislature, a 70/30 split in parliamentary seats.
Today, even that seems shaky and nebulous. At this point, in keeping with the agreement, the occupants of the AFC’s nine seats should already have been known and submitted, not for Granger’s vetting but to complement APNU’s share of 22 seats. Instead, what we have had is relative silence from the AFC, outside of the party’s go-to (and worn-out) strategy of leaking its intention with regard to partial seat allocations. Granger’s effective response has been his own go-to (and worn-out) strategy of a prerecorded statement, one in which he referenced the PNC 11 times, including at one point bizarrely referring to the “PNC plus APNU coalition” and the APNU+AFC coalition just twice. A clear signal has been sent to the AFC that the revised Cummingsburg seat allocation formula is useless and/or that even the selection of AFC parliamentarians will be subject to the Head of the List of Candidates, Granger himself. One news entity has already reported that even without a formal list being submitted, the PNC Leader had rejected one of the AFC’s names under consideration.
That development in itself might simply be an indication of a not unwarranted loss of confidence in the value of the AFC as a partner. If anything, the 2018 LGEs showed that the AFC was a spent electoral force. However, during the week Granger released – with pseudo-biblical aplomb – his ‘Ten Commandments’ framework for parliamentary inclusion, a Borgesian list of the obvious to the mundane. Granger, for example, listed the necessity of residence in constituency communities, something that belies an apparent ignorance of the political system. There are two sets of seats in parliament. The first, the 40 national top-up seats have no geographic constituency basis. The second, the 25 geographical seats, already require that candidates listed as representing those seats be registered to vote (hence presumably resident) in those communities. Granger’s geographic constituency ‘commandment’ was therefore simultaneously absurd in the case of the national top-up seats and superfluous in the case of the geographic seats. Another superfluous ‘commandment’ had to do with the issue of rejection those with dual citizenship from entering parliament – no such commandment was necessary since every candidate on his list not only had to sign a legal document swearing to their eligibility to enter parliament, but were also presumably vetted for that eligibility by the party machinery in the wake of the dual citizenship scandal of last year. That said, the most consequential ‘commandment’ of Granger was his tenth one, wherein he states that no ‘cardboard cutout’ party will be represented in Parliament under a list he controls. The indicators he attached to determine what would be a valid political party are, inter alia: a substantial and active membership, proof of a constituency, and evidence of governance mechanisms like an executive structure and party meetings.
That is – and this can hardly escape the notice of the parties of APNU – creative marginalization, and ultimately disassembly. No member of APNU except PNC can, by Granger’s standards, escape the designation of cardboard cutout party, an ironic replay of the “fit and proper” gamesmanship that attended the ultimate selection of James Patterson as GECOM Chair. The WPA, the most significant partner, has a nebulous executive at best, a membership that is more symbolic than actual, and no governance structure – and it is the most qualified of the rest. The next consequential partner, CN Sharma’s JFAP, suffered a major mutiny when its sole ministerial and parliamentary representative, Jaipaul Sharma (CN’s son) defected to the PNC, wiping out a third of his party’s executive and likely membership as well. Sydney Allicock, despite formerly occupying the seat of Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Vice-President on behalf of GAP, is the only known member of GAP. The same can be said of Keith Scott, perennial leader and only known member of the NFA.
This means that with a weakened AFC at the mercy of Granger’s sole discretion as head of the list, and with the WPA, JFAP, GAP and NFA already pre-disqualified from parliamentary representation according to Granger’s Tenth Commandment, the opposition benches of the next parliament will be PNC benches for all effective purposes, the sole exception being the joinder list representative.
With this move, the PNC has clearly decided that the Big Benab is no longer, at least in Granger’s view, a viable edifice. What started out as the movement towards inclusionary rebranding that began with the Reform component, expanded to Reform-One Guyana, further expanded to APNU, and ultimately won the executive at the helm of APNU+AFC, has now regressed to just the PNC. It is clear that none of the other members of APNU is going to survive the exclusion from Parliament and it may well be that the point is for the individual members to be absorbed into the PNC, as was Jaipaul Sharma. A similar fate may well await the AFC as well. It may be that, after this assimilation is done, the PNC can be the kind of opposition that Burnham described in 1958, the sort that is necessary particularly when it comes to keeping government accountable in an oil and gas economy. Considering the quality of leadership demonstrated over the past five years, and particularly over the past five months, this seems not at all likely.
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