October 5, 1992, was an historic day for Guyana – the day when democracy returned in free and fair elections for the first time in twenty-four years. It is commemorated only by the PPP but in a way that aids its own credentials and whatever current political disputes it is engaged in. It would have marked a maturing of Guyana’s political leadership if the PNCR could have also noted the importance of October 5 and claim ownership of the role it played in restoring democracy. Since the PNCR would have had to confront a part of its past to do so, this period of its and Guyana’s history, like several others, for which it shares some credit, remain unaddressed. Guyana will have to ascend to a higher level of statesmanship for both of our main political parties to put the events of that now historic period in full perspective without the politically antagonistic framework in which it is now remembered.
By the time October 5, 1992, came along, both the world and the PNCR had changed. The Cold War had ended and, quite independently, the PNCR had transitioned dramatically from a party that espoused Marxist socialism, close relations with socialist countries and state ownership of the means of production, to a party which identified itself in completely opposite terms. The PPP came to accept these changes in 1992.
In 1985 it shed its socialist ideology and image, entered an IMF programme, dramatically reduced government spending, sought debt reduction and negotiated a bailout from the West. To build its credentials with the West and prove that it had abandoned all left solutions, it discontinued unity talks with the PPP. This reversal of PNCR’s economic and political policies was as transformational as the concessions it made to facilitate free and fair elections. Guyana is in a different and better place today because of these developments. The PNCR declines to talk about them or to claim them because it is embarrassed about its past. Burnham’s selective past is glorified. Hoyte’s past is ignored.
October 5, 1992 also brought a resurgence of the domination politics. In the preceding period there was a glimmer of political recognition that ethno-political dominance needed to be dealt with, which undergirded important political developments. This arose as a reaction to the PNCR’s authoritarian rule as much as an ideological response to the need for unity of all left forces.
In 1977 the PPP proposed a National Patriotic Front Government under which the majority party in free and fair elections will hold the post of prime minister and the second largest party will hold the newly created post of executive president, both with powers that were negotiated. From then on it until 1991 it espoused ‘shared governance’ and ‘winner does not take all.’
Just prior to 1985 the then PNC had rejected the proposals that the IMF had offered. It then sought to engage the PPP in discussions for some form of unity, which appeared to have been a pre-condition for aid from the socialist countries. In both cases, moreso in relation to the former, the proposals were dressed in ideological garb but the reality was that these were clear attempts at political resolutions to Guyana’s ethno-political dilemma. Both parties revere their founder leaders and commemorate their anniversaries. But somehow, when their current leaders talk about their support for unity, they fail to refer to these specific examples.
While those proposals were made in specific conditions, which do not now exist, ethno-political dominance was an obstacle to progress then as it is now. The desire or striving for ethnic security or protection through political office is a phenomenon in societies like ours with large ethnic groups. It will not go away. October 5, 1992, unleashed the forces that drive political domination with renewed vigour. Both parties, having already experienced the benefits of ethno-political political domination and unable to rise above subjectivist inclinations, are now comfortable with the culture. We cannot return to 1977 or 1985 but if constitutional mechanisms are creatively deployed, the effects of ethno-political dominance can be minimized in a way that attracts the confidence of the electorate.
Both political groups making up the APNU-AFC coalition government have called for constitutional reform and the AFC recently emphasized their platform, indicating that it’s awaiting the return to Guyana of Prime Minister Nagamootoo, who is responsible for constitutional reform to begin to focus on this matter. But unless the parameters are clear, namely, that one of the fundamental purposes is to discuss measures that will reduce political dominance, channel ethno-political competition into constructive collaboration, allow the main political parties the opportunity of a decisive say in governance, then constitutional reform will once again merely touch the fringes and not its core.
Both the PPP and the APNU-AFC coalition believe that they will win the next general elections. If there are no consequential reforms by the time the next elections are held, Guyana loses. The challenge for those who see the vital necessity for an end to our ethno-political by of constitutional reform, particularly the AFC, which must now show some spine, is to convince both APNU and the PPP that constitutional reform is in their interests.