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Guyana’s Joint Opposition missed the opportunity for a Political Solution immediately after the 2011 elections

by David Hinds

For any society to advance it has to settle a fundamental question—Who Governs? Such a settlement is even more urgent in countries, such as Guyana, which are deeply polarized along ethno-racial and political lines. From the time of the split of the nationalist movement in 1955, this question has haunted Guyana. The failure to adequately address and settle it has invariably let to frequent bouts of ethnic conflict. Yet successive generations of political leaders have either ignored the question or sought to answer it within a political and constitutional framework that is premised on majoritarianism, domination and inequality. 

This reluctance on the part of the political parties and Civil Society organizations to commit to a political solution that settles the question of who governs is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Guyanese politics. Guyana’s political history these past five decades is littered with opportunities for a political settlement of the question of governance. However, despite periodic and sometimes opportunistic declarations, these parties and groups eventually find ways to accommodate to the status quo, which they all decry, especially when they are in the opposition or at election time.

The recent 2011 elections were no different. The Alliance For Change (AFC) vigorously campaigned on a platform of difference. They advanced a platform that ostensibly separated them from the old politics and the old political parties. This message resonated with a section of the Indian Guyanese electorate. The A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) also campaigned on the promise of a new political dispensation. They were even bolder than the AFC; they promised a National Government that would be inclusive—no more domination and one-party/one-race government. The overwhelming majority of the African Guyanese electorate embraced this vision and turned it into a revolutionary upsurge that had all the signs of a mass movement. The only party that did not embrace change was the PPP; it promised more of the status quo.

Despite substantial irregularities on the part of the PPP the official results showed that the Joint Opposition had defeated the PPP. The problem was that the governmental framework did not permit this victory to be reflected in the Executive Branch of government—the nerve-center of political power. The electoral loser—the PPP—was able, based on an undemocratic framework, to claim the all-powerful presidency and the right to name the entire cabinet. But the Joint Opposition had control of the Parliament whose power, though not as substantial as the Executive, could still be used as a check on the latter. In other words both sides got prizes, but the PPP’s prize has far more positive political value than that of the Joint Opposition. So in the long run the PPP would be able to still wield power albeit with more opposition scrutiny.

But those who voted for the Joint Opposition did not vote just for more scrutiny—they voted for the change promised by the AFC and the APNU. In that regard some of us felt the Joint Opposition had a duty to go for something more substantial than scrutiny—a political solution. We felt that what the Joint Opposition lacked in terms of formal power, it could make up with the mass momentum that was on its side. We felt, and still feel, that it was the time to push for a political solution. The Joint Opposition now had considerable leverage. It had won some political control. A section of the population was prepared to stand with the APNU leaders. The young African Guyanese quickly transformed themselves into a movement and took to the streets. The PPP was uncertain; it had lost its absolute grip on the formal institutions of government. It had lost part of its mass base. Its multi-ethnic mask was ripped off by the Freddie Kissoon libel case and buried by the people of Buxton. It was the opportune time to bring all the parties to the table to hammer out a political solution in the form of a National Government with two principal objectives—immediate socio-economic relief for the Guyanese people and constitutional change aimed at institutionalizing a political framework based on concrete inclusivity and ethno-political equality and jointness.

But that was not to be. All the actors speedily retreated. Immediately after the results were announced all the usual suspects declared that Guyana was a changed place; that we had arrived. The struggle was over. The AFC accepted the results without even a question. Civil Society appealed for normalcy. The APNU was pushed into a corner and quickly fell in line. It disassociated itself, at least publicly, from the young people on the streets. The young people stayed on the streets, but their presence quickly became mere symbolism. Parliament was going to be the great equalizer. The PPP sensed an unexpected capitulation on the part of the opposition and extended the “olive branch,” which was unconditionally accepted by the opposition.

Now, four months after the election we are back to where we were before the polls. The status quo is alive and well. The change promised by the APNU and the AFC are forgotten. The opposition have found out that the PPP’s olive branch was a trap. The APNU initially gave the elections high marks only to later reverse that grade. But by then it was too late; they had already legitimized the PPP government. The Joint Opposition has attempted to flex its muscles in parliament, but the outcomes have been mixed. There is no common approach by the two parties. The AFC abstained on a vote, which in the circumstances is tantamount to voting with the PPP.

Meanwhile, the PPP has quickly learned how to wield absolute power without having formal absolute power. It has locked the opposition in so-called tripartite talks while it bullies them even in the parliament they control.  It has moved to the courts to frustrate the Joint Opposition. It excluded them from the preparation of the budget. It gives the pensioners 600 dollars and public assistance $400. It rewards the APNU for legitimizing the election results by charging them with rigging the polls. It continues to use the state media as the PPP mouthpiece. Linden still has one TV station.

It was David Rudder who some time ago put the following words in music: The more we change/Rearrange/Everything remains the same.

David Hinds is a Political Activist and Commentator. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. His writings can be found on his website guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com