Guyana Elections 2020: Changed political debate — Stabroek News Editorial

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Changes in Guyana’s political landscape have not been much in evidence over the decades, and the few which have materialised have been very slow to make their appearance. There was a major shift in 1992, but after that everything settled down to reflect a familiar pattern. The election of 2011, however, was a portent of developments to come, since the AFC secured the largest vote of any third party in the history of this country. Following that, the win of the APNU+AFC coalition in 2015 was not such a great surprise.

The two ethnically-based parties – the PPP/C in particular − have been slow to grasp the full implications of the demographic shift which the rise of the AFC represented, although it might also have reflected a generational shift too, since at least some younger urbanised voters may have broken from the ethno-political straitjacket of their forebears. Now that the AFC has been absorbed by APNU, it is not known how citizens who once voted for them will cast their ballots tomorrow.   

What can be said is that a number of new parties have emerged, and seven of these will be contesting the election, albeit not in all ten regions. While they have no hope of gaining a plurality of the votes, let alone an overall majority, they have nevertheless succeeded for the first time in changing fundamentally the nature of the political debate here, no matter how modest their support base.

The promises made by politicians on this occasion can be said to fall into two broad categories: what might be called formal issues and those related to content. The term ‘formal’ pertains to matters such as our political system and structures, while content refers to taxes, how money is to be spent, improving education and the health service, and the like. Nowadays, how our oil resources are to be managed will be high on the list, although one or two aspects of this might tip over into the formal category.

Traditionally, our parties have confined themselves in their manifestos to policies related to content, and whatever they have had to say on that really didn’t mean very much because the constituencies of the two primary contenders voted for them in any case, no matter what they promised to do or not do. A failure to adhere to commitments, therefore, never carried any electoral sanction.

At the forefront of this election, however, is the structural subject of constitutional reform. Some of the small parties have declared their adherence to shared governance in one form or another, although there is little likelihood that this will eventuate in the near future, even supposing such a radical approach were desirable, which it cannot be taken for granted that it is. Furthermore, there may be no appetite among the public for anything so radical at the present time once the details are explained, in addition to which increasing demographic changes may alter the kind of constitutional canvas which could be justified.

Be that as it may, what does seem to be clear is that the public wants some kind of reform to our current political arrangements even if that is not as far-reaching as some new parties are advocating. Nevertheless, those parties have understood and responded to the public mood, and have brought the question to the centre of the political debate. It is to be expected they will listen to citizens and adapt themselves to what it is possible to achieve in the short term should any of their representatives find themselves in the National Assembly.

It may be as well that among the supporters of the two major players are those who are sympathetic to the idea of changes to our Constitution, and their loyalties notwithstanding, would like a less fraught formal framework in which to conduct our political activities. It seems the PPP/C is now sensing the current trend respecting public interest in formal issues, and sees the need to respond to it after it accomplished nothing on that front for 23 years. While its manifesto contains all the customary content about taxation, sugar estates, oil, health and education, etc, it has also said that if elected to office it would advance constitutional reform. Like its Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, who has spoken on the subject in more recent times, it would not be drawn on specifics; it just said that changes would be done on the basis of the input of citizens themselves. Mr Jagdeo, for his part, was quoted as saying: “A broad-based process is what is required and we will commit to that for constitutional reform…” He went on to pledge that, “… whatever comes out of it, we will respect.”

APNU+AFC’s position is somewhat more invidious. President David Granger too has recognised that the party had to make some declaration on the subject given the fact that it has become part of the national debate, but then the coalition’s manifesto of 2015 was a harbinger of that. The problem is, as we pointed out in our February 17th leader, that although the party made a promise five years ago for the “Establishment of a Constitutional Reform Committee with a mandate to complete consultations, draft amendments and present same to the National Assembly for approval within nine months,” and proposed the election of the president by a majority of electors, and separate elections for the presidency and National Assembly, nothing happened.

And so now in 2020 promises about the consultations, etc, and “contributing to a Constitution which reflects the will of the wider society” are back again. At the very least, this will not redound to the party’s credibility. While as said above, failure to deliver on content matters has not been much of a problem in the past, this particular formal issue could present it with difficulties. President Granger’s own enthusiasm for constitutional reform came into question after he implied that were his government to be returned to office, it would address the question of no-confidence votes. That to the public ear sounded more like a return to less liberal days, although given the current climate it may be that he will decide to backtrack in this regard in due course.

There is one quite different area in which the public debate has changed. It relates to the Indigenous people, who for the first time are telling the parties what they want in a formal setting, as they did when the National Toshaos Council in conjunction with the Amerindian Peoples’ Association invited the political players to a forum to listen to their concerns and tell them what they proposed for Guyana’s first-comers. The Indigenous nations have very special interests connected to their locations and lifestyle, which are quite different from coastal ones.

For a very long time, most of them functioned outside the perimeter of our centrally directed political world, except come election times when they might be showered with outboard engines, etc. The other side of this coin involved the allegations of political bullying, and only last week we reported Leader of the Liberty and Justice Party Lenox Shuman as saying that some Indigenous people in the hinterland had told him they could not vote for him because they were afraid of victimisation by the two large parties. Both the PNCR and the PPP/C have long depended on Indigenous votes in circumstances where their ethnic bases could not guarantee them a majority, and in the case of the former, even a plurality.

With the increasing penetration of the hinterland by coastal citizens and the formation of the NTC, the nations are being drawn more and more into national politics, and the forum mentioned above is the first time in an election where they have been the subjects, rather than the objects in the course of a political campaign. One imagines that no matter who forms the next government, Indigenous political consciousness will grow over time, and all parties will have to take note of it.

In the meantime, no matter who wins tomorrow’s election, or how the Parliament is composed, the constitutional question will not go away. This time, the character of the debate has changed.

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Comments

  • brandli62  On March 2, 2020 at 4:04 am

    An excellent editorial with lots of food for thought! Let’s hope that today’s elections will lead to a viable and stable government for the coming five years.

  • brandli62  On March 2, 2020 at 5:04 am

    Demographic shifts, i.e. increases in the mixed-race population and the indigenous community, provide the best hope for the future of Guyana. The stranglehold of race-centric parties maybe broken today, which will force the formation of coalition governments. This is the way forward for Guyana. Other countries, including many European countries, have been run for decades successfully with coalition governments. It’s a blessing that Guyana has not adopted the Westminster voting system, where the winner takes it all.

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