Antonio Gramsci’s statement, meant for a different situation, accurately depicts Guyana’s political condition. He describes this period as ‘the interregnum’ in which ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Our symptoms are: squabbling over the Budget, voting a hospital down, failure of the tripartite talks, the Speaker overruling the Chief Justice, Government’s support for ‘shared governance’ not ‘shared government,’ the licences controversy, unassented bills, Clement Rohee, general stalemate and so on.
But the most controversial symptom was President Jagdeo’s discourse at the funeral of the late Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud that stirred wide comment. Relying on evidence led by the defendants in an ongoing libel case in which he is the plaintiff, he concluded that Indians are on the receiving end of a resurgent campaign by the Opposition to intensify prejudice against them.
In the irony of all ironies, the PPP through Minister Clement Rohee, said that Dr. Jagdeo was speaking as a ‘private citizen,’ an epithet hurled by Dr. Jagdeo at Mrs. Janet Jagan, his benefactor, when she dared to express disagreement with his banning of advertisements to the Stabroek News. The extent of Minister Rohee’s chagrin, if any, was not known when both President Ramotar and the PPP gave official sanction to Dr. Jagdeo.
The PPP had always recognized the importance of race in Guyana but has always contextualized it within a political framework. As ethnic divisions began to express themselves politically after the breakup of the united PPP in 1955, and as the PPP became more ideologically oriented after 1964, it began to believe that ethnic insecurities would be subsumed by the class struggle.
The PPP also felt that an over emphasis on ethnic discrimination would hinder the struggle to unite the working class. The creation of a united movement for mass activity was decided on very early as the preferred method of struggle against the PNC dictatorship. Always at the forefront of its political strategy was the necessity to avoid violence which could quickly escalate into ethnic violence. It felt that defining the problems of Guyana in ethnic terms only would be incorrect and dangerous. Ethnic discrimination was highlighted in this period as a struggle against “political and racial discrimination” – always linking the two, with discrimination retaining at all times its political dimension.
After ten years of PNC rule the PPP was no closer to securing democracy. In fact the PNC was able to rig a two-third majority in 1973 without a murmur outside of Guyana. At the same time the PNC had begun to move left and the PPP had begun to come under pressure from its external friends on the left for some engagement with the PNC. These factors led to Critical Support in 1975.
Shortly after, the PPP was shaken by the defection to the PNC of Ranji Chandisingh, recognized as Cheddi Jagan’s deputy and a leading ideologue. He was dissatisfied with the emphasis on the ‘critical’ rather than the ‘support’ in the equation of “critical support.” This dispute had emerged suddenly, with suspicious proximity to his return from a visit to Cuba, where he would have met with senior Cuban Communist Party officials. Cuba had developed exceptionally close relations with the PNC by that time and wanted if possible, the creation of a united political front in Guyana, or at least much stronger support for the PNC by the PPP. But the PPP’s priority was free and fair elections because it felt that no deeply collaborative relationship with the PNC could survive in conditions of continued rigged elections.
To achieve maximum impact for the objective outlined above, a double whammy against the PPP was intended with another defection coming soon after Chandisingh’s. That process was initiated but not consummated.
The persistence of the ethnic factor, the entrenchment of PNC rule, the movement of the PNC to the left, the danger of destabilization of the country, pressure from our external friends, defections, all eventually led to the proposals for a National Patriotic Front (NPC). However, the two dominant factors underlining the necessity for the “political solution” outlined by the NPC, which the PPP had been urging for several years, were the ethnic factor and the strengthening of the left trend. The “winner does not take all” principle, spawned by the NPC, entered the PPP’s political lexicon and informed its strategy up to 1991.
The unexpected absolute majority gained by the PPP at the 1992 elections resulted in the abandonment of the PPP’s decade and a half policy of “winner does not take all” politics, assisted by Hoyte’s intransigence and the WPA’s bashfulness before and after the elections. Despite continuing insecurities and instabilities since then, the PPP has made every justification, however hollow, about “winner does not take all” being no longer relevant, even in the face of the loss of its majority.
The PPP showed the way three decades ago to substantially reduce, if not eliminate, the fears of ethnic domination. Dr. Jagdeo has the power to persuade his colleagues in the PPP leadership, which has supported his comments, to restore the PPP’s deeper political understanding of race, then dust off and update “winner does not take all.”
To conclude with the Gramscian analogy, the old era of majority rule is dying in Guyana but a new system of governance is yet to be born. The ‘interregnum’ is throwing up all kinds of ‘symptoms,’ exposing the uncertainties of the times, while we figure out what to do next.