October 5 will mark the 29th anniversary of the return of free and fair elections to Guyana in 1992, and the first attempt since then to restore the dark days of election rigging. The latter event has underlined the importance of the former, and the need to write about it. The argument of equivalence, which is hostile to the realities, should not deter us.
The result of the 1992 elections was uncertain. PNC’s policies had ravaged the economy, destroyed democracy and elevated assassination to State policy. The PPP had been excluded from the political process for twenty-four years and was contesting in alliance with a civic component, rather than jointly with the WPA, DLM and other allies in the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy.
Two surprises emerged. The PNC was returned with 42 percent and the PPP/C with 53 percent. The surprises were that the PNC sustained its pre-1968 support, despite its policies which lead to the near destruction of Guyana, and the PPP obtained an overall majority, surpassing its traditional base which was incapable of giving it a majority of more than 45 percent. Its gained 8 percent over the 45 percent it obtained in 1964, generally regarded as the last free and fair elections prior to the era of election rigging. The increase in the PPP’s votes was no doubt due to the support of Amerindians, who had previously supported the United Force. After 1964, the PPP had worked assiduously among Amerindians. By and large, however, the elections proved that the decades between 1964 and 1992 had seen no reduction in ethnic voting patterns. Ethno-political dominance remained alive and well as the major factor in Guyana’s electoral politics.
During the years since 1992, many well-meaning individuals and organisations have expressed views and have sought to implement policies to alleviate ethnic disharmony, ethnic voting patterns and the political instability and violence they have engendered. These have included the establishment of the Ethnic Relations Commission, constitutional amendments to prohibit political parties from promoting racial hostility, apart from entrenched provisions against discrimination, the passage of laws creating criminal offences against racial abuse and the establishment of a Ministry of Social Cohesion.
After almost thirty years since 1992, and all the efforts described above, Guyana has experienced no reduction in the drive for ethno-political dominance or of ethnic insecurities or hostility. If anything, these have all intensified. There is the condition that has sustained this state of affairs. Because of the ethnic rivalry created by our history, the electorate does not wish to have it any other way. Guyanese and friends of Guyana, including observers of Guyana’s politics who wish to see a different Guyana, need to come to grips with and accept this enduring reality and to seek to develop and support acceptable ideas that will mitigate political volatility which it sustains.
A stark reminder of the dangers created by that volatility is the recent attempt to rig the elections during last year. I can speak with first-hand knowledge of the vast reforms to electoral laws and procedures that have been implemented since 1992. I was a member of the Elections Commission for those elections and for elections in 1997 and 2001, including the 1994 local government elections, all of which saw substantial improvements, advances and innovations, supported by overseas partners, to improve the elections machinery and elections’ practices. Since that time, under the leadership of Dr. Steve Surujballi, even greater improvements have been made.
It is clear now that no matter what laws are now passed, what practices are now introduced, what innovations are implemented, what observers are present, the potential rigging of elections will continue to remain a political hazard to haunt Guyana. That is because elections results in Guyana generate the perception that one of the major race groups loses the right to a place of honour and dignity in the country that it has sacrificed for, quite apart from its belief that it will be deprived of a fair share of the resources that are available for distribution by the State. It does not matter whether or not there is no discrimination. Materiality is irrelevant. it is the psyche that is tormented. No force on earth that can convince the ‘losing’ ethnic group that such discrimination does not exist and would not continue or alleviate the pain of losing.
What is to be done? Ethnic insecurities and disharmony can only be reduced if the major political parties make adjustments. The postures at present, and immediate past history, suggest that no such adjustments are on the horizon. But for us who live here and want to see a better Guyana, efforts must continue by writing and speaking about these matters. The PPP needs to understand that as the party with the larger support base, and the greater possibility to win elections, or win a plurality, exclusivity of rule in the context of a permanently divided polity, is not sustainable as a long-term political strategy. The disastrous attempt to sustain a minority government between 2011-2015 should be a lesson. The APNU needs to understand that, since numbers are not on its side, and allies (UF and AFC) tend to fall by the wayside, shouting also is not sustainable as a long-term political strategy.