The Alliance for Change (AFC) must be congratulated for conducting what appears to have been a most transparent, competitive and well executed leadership election. I recognise that there was a level of oligarchic intervention in the process but my impression is that there were genuine electoral struggles, and the normal pre-election scheming and cajoling, which has become the hallmark of the two larger traditional parties, do not appear to have been significant.
The recent AFC congress came at a time when many believe that the party has lost much of its support base because it has lost its way. As a result, there is considerable mutterings about its continued relevance, and the need for some kind of new ‘third force’.
In this article, I will make a broad historical/ideological sweep of the development of the party to indicate that there is substance in the view that the AFC is now adrift. Later, I will add more flesh to my contention that its present condition is the result of a failure to properly grasp and manage a difficult political context.
More than ever before, we live in changing times and to survive sensibly, organisations must respond appropriately. But the AFC was launched in 2005, only just over a dozen years ago, and an assessment of its current position could legitimately begin with its original objectives, if only because the main problem that it was established to at least mitigate is still very much with us and has arguably become worse.
The core idea that brought the AFC into existence was a belief that it could fundamentally and positively change the ethnic divide that has too long bedeviled us. Thus, after the 2006 general and regional elections, in an open piece ‘To the People of Guyana’, the AFC stated that it ‘entered this election race with the intention of ending the racial divide and stopping the cycle of post election violence … to deny any single party a majority in parliament so that our parliamentary system for the first time could better articulate the needs and aspirations of a wider section of the Guyanese society, and …. to be the conscience of the nation, to ensure inclusiveness and to provide representation for the people in parliament in a responsible and constructive way’.
Even before the launching of the AFC, Ms. Sheila Holder, one of its founding members but still then a WPA MP, claimed that the desire of Khemraj Ramjattan and Raphael Trotman ‘to bridge the racial divide that has developed due to the dominance of the two major political forces… could only be a good thing and people like me have an obligation to support it and that is what I am doing’ (SN: 26/06/2005). Over the years, literally dozens of statements like these have emanated from the leadership of the AFC.
What made the AFC different and attractive was that, for the sake of comparison, if the major objective of the 1953 Jagan/Burnham PPP was to form a social movement with the priority of winning independence, the AFC prioritised developing a social movement to break the ethnic deadlock. The party was not immediately expected to be able to defeat the PNC and PPP; it was to garner sufficient cross ethnic support to be able to steer the juggernauts in a more enlightened direction.
Up to only a few months before the 2015 election, the AFC, particularly Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, adamantly held to the position that the objective was to build a multi ethnic base and that the AFC was not, therefore, interested in joining either of the two major parties.
But, primarily as a result of its being too long in office, the PPP/C was running amok and given that our constitution does not allow for post-election coalitions, many, including myself, argued that the AFC’s position was overly cautious. Coming under increasing pressure, the party relented and joined forces with APNU essentially to stop the PPP/C.
This effort was successful, but given our ethnically polarised political culture, it immediately placed the AFC in a most invidious situation with the ‘losing’ Indian ethnic group and severely jeopardized its objective of forming a substantial cross-ethnic political base. Cooperating with APNU to stop the PPP/C was a structural necessity; not a programmatic requirement or, given the strong stance that Mr. Ramjattan took, a desire.
Moreover, the AFC’s essential objective will not necessarily be achieved by its being a minor party in a governing coalition with one of the older parties. Therefore, the new context in which it found itself meant that its leaders had to perform a crucial balancing act if it was not to lose its essential character and gradually be consumed by APNU. The leaders had to balance the party’s core value commitment to end ethnic politics with its coalition obligations.
To be successful at this required a more subtle management of coalition relations than the AFC has demonstrated. At the very least, it required taking positions that will make the public recognise that the party was respected by all its other partners and that it still held the moral high ground to which it laid claim. Intentionally or not, this did not occur.
Immediately after the 2015 elections, APNU began acting in a manner that only helped to make matters worse for the AFC. It soon became clear that, notwithstanding the Cummingsburg Accord, the AFC’s prime minister was not going to be allowed to chair cabinet meetings or select ministerial candidates. This is perhaps the first important occasion where the AFC dropped the ball by making no more than rudimentary noises!
The AFC then proceeded to denude itself of any substantially better moral content. When the almost doubling of the number of ministers and the creation of unnecessary vice-presidencies was proposed, the AFC did not object but instead garnered its portion. The AFC was among those who only days before had criticised PPP ministers for living high on the hog, but it then went along with the large ministerial salary increases notwithstanding the relative pittance offered to public servants. When one of their more feisty members opposed the introduction of parking meters they hung him out to dry, and we are now being informed that its coalition partners (which could only be APNU) are helping to pay the AFC’s debt (SN: 06/02/2017).
Even more devastating, the AFC’s ideological and political position would be enhanced by constitutional changes that allow for post elections coalitions. The party is apparently the point man for the coalition on this issue, which, in terms of the promise that reforms will be ready for the 2020 elections, appears all but dead! The list goes on.
Maybe surprised to be in government and dazzled by political office, the AFC shifted focus and is now just as adamantly as it once defended its right to hold the balance between the PPP and PNCR, defending maintaining the coalition intact!
In the context of heightened ethnic concerns that it was established to bridge, the AFC has lost its focus and is now essentially involved in power politics, i.e., fighting to win and hold office for all manner of nebulous reasons. There are thus understandable questions about its continued relevance and about the need for some kind of new arrangement.