This year is shaping up to be a defining one in contemporary Guyanese politics. The government is under pressure from its constituents to do better while the PPP is trying its best to exploit the government’s inherent weaknesses and self-inflicted wounds. Despite, protestations to the contrary, given its novelty– its departure from the norm—the government has a one-term window to prove that its type is durable and worth persisting with. The closest political formations to the APNU+AFC Coalition which achieved office in the post-colonial Anglophone Caribbean occurred in Trinidad and Tobago twice and on both occasions, they served one term.
The first was the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), which governed from 1986 to 1991—one term. Today NAR does not exist in any serious way–the only constituent party that is still alive is the United National Congress(UNC), which was the largest component of the so-called “One Love” Coalition. The second coalition, which lasted 2010-2015, was again dominated by the UNC and lasted for one term. As was expected, the UNC has survived but the other partners have declined in terms of their presence on the landscape.
The pattern, if you can call it that, is clear—the electorate judges partnership governments by different standards. The first term is crucial. The two in Trinidad did not make it past the first term. Trinidad and Tobago is similar to Guyana as far as the political-ethnic dynamics are concerned. It is, therefore, not farfetched to believe that our Coalition could suffer the same fate as the two Trinidad partnerships. One can never predict socio-political motion with any certainty; we can only be guided by history. The jury is still out on our Coalition and the other Anglophone Caribbean Partnership government—Team Unity in St Kitts Nevis. Although that electorate is not ethnically divided as in Guyana and Trinidad, the political tribalism is equally intense.
I have said over and over that I don’t think this Coalition government is steeped in a sense of its larger political significance to Guyana. There is no clear political direction. The Coalition functions more as an administrative partnership—they manage the government. But that management is not part of a larger political vision and direction. That, for me, is the major reason that they stumble so regularly and so badly. And in a 50-50 ethnically polarized country, every little stumble is exploited by the opposition as part of that party’s larger political and ethnic narrative— “You see what we have been saying for decades, they are bullies, they are racist, they are corrupt.”
The Coalition must counter that kind of politics with its own alternative praxis, which must do three things. First, they have to inspire their base that they will use government to remove the barriers to political and economic equality which is at the heart of their narrative of suffering. The Coalition’s base, which is not a reliable voting bloc as far as turning out to vote is concerned, came out in larger than normal numbers in 2015 and voted them into office not just to run an efficient government, but to ensure that the economic and political playing field is leveled. While the Indian Guyanese narrative of suffering is steeped in a sense of electoral fraud against them and in being vulnerable to the coercive force of the state, the African Guyanese narrative of suffering is grounded in a feeling of systemic political and socio-economic marginalization.
The latter was exposed during the PPP’s last term in office, when the Jagdeo-Ramotar regime moved to correct perceived Indian Guyanese insecurity with absolute domination of state and society. African Guyanese, therefore, are scared of another PPP term in office and expect their government to democratize the rules of the country’s political economy as a form of protection against future domination. I am afraid the government acts as if it is unaware or oblivious to that reality. I think African Guyanese will not display the same kind of enthusiasm for the Coalition at the next election if they do not sense some shift in their collective socio-political and economic condition.
The coalition cannot simply depend on just the fear of the PPP; that must be supplemented by policies aimed at democratizing the political economy to give their constituents a fairer chance to advance. But if the attitude to the vendors, to the matter of public servants and teachers’ wages, to small miners and other contractors along with the absence of a comprehensive plan to stimulate small business are anything to go by, the government has a lot of catching up to do in this regard.
Unlike the PPP, the Coalition cannot opt for domination as a central mode of governance—its base does not constitute a majority or large plurality of the electorate and its traditionally lower turn out to the poll inflates the size of its opponent’s base which does turn out in higher numbers. It means that the Coalition has to contend with the PPP in the Indian Guyanese community. It cannot allow the PPP’s negative definition of the Coalition in that community to go unchallenged. It may not be able to win more Indian Guyanese votes at the next election, but it can demonstrate to them that it is more enlightened than the PPP on matters of political virtue and ethnic equality. It must expose the PPP’s extreme abuse of power and the country’s common resources while they were in power. Indian Guyanese have to know what was done in their name.
There must be a larger political praxis that brings together the expectations and interests of the two major ethnic groups and the smaller but equally important Amerindian community. Policies that flow from vision are much more focused than those that are eclectic-not part of a cohesive approach. This is an urgent necessity for the Coalition.
Cabinet is a management body; it implements policy. It is not a place to construct vision and political strategy. Unfortunately, it is the only functioning body of the Coalition. There is no decentralization of political thinking and planning among the partners; they are not consulted outside of Cabinet. This is a major deficiency which could well come back to haunt the government at the next election.
I know managing partnerships is not easy. The big party invariably dominates, often without much consideration and respect for the so-called smaller partners. Small parties are left with the burden of keeping the government together out of fear of being the spoiler and because some of their Ministers become comfortable with office and would never rock the boat. In the case of the Coalition, I think we have a combination of all of the above.
The AFC and the WPA have therefore become prisoners of the logic of a Partnership government with the slimmest of margins—there is little wriggle room as far as challenging decisions that they disagree with. They have one thing in common—they want to hold on to power. Without power the PNC is big but toothless—since the Hoyte-Norton-led post-1997 upsurge was neutralized by Jagdeo, the PNC became a scared party that ironically, thanks to Corbin, came to grips with the folly that it could return to power on its own. The AFC’s importance diminishes if it is not part of government and the WPA will be an echo in the wilderness—they all need to be in power to affect the larger politics.
But beyond that they don’t have anything that inspires confidence. They have not created a vision out of a shared world-view. Perhaps, they can’t or maybe don’t want to do so. But the hard truth is that they need something that goes beyond managing the government if they will break the one-term jinx for Coalition Governments in the Caribbean. If they don’t, it will not be because of the fitness of the PPP for office, but because of their lack of political vision.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org