Hearing the Guyanese People’s Voice: The 2015 Election Results

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Nicholas Birns, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Several days after the Guyanese general election on May 11, a definite vote count has finally been taken. While for a time speculation swirled regarding the outcome, it has become clear, not just by the estimation of the opposition partnership for National Unity/Alliance for Change that it has won, but by the increasingly petulant and forlorn demands of the ruling People’s Progressive Party-Civic (PPP) for a recount.

The victorious opposition is led by former brigadier general David Granger, now in position to assume office. But the PPP, under President Donald Ramotar, is not going quietly or in good cheer, insisting that it has not lost the election. This represents a troubling change in behavior for the PPP, as it has, historically, honorably embodied the aspirations of the Guyanese people.

For a generation, the PPP had attracted progressive sympathies worldwide. This was the party of Guyana’s initial national-liberation leader Cheddi Jagan. For a time, it was eclipsed and marginalized under the two-decade-long dictatorship of Forbes Burnham. The Jagan/Burnham divide was one of the few non-ideological antagonisms in Latin America and the Caribbean during the Cold War epoch. Instead it was primarily ethnic, as Burnham was largely supported by Afro-Guyanese and Jagan by Indo-Guyanese in this racially polarized nation. In addition, Burnham was more of a Soviet-line sympathizer, whereas Jagan, though a leftist, was an independent radical. Indeed, Jagan’s return to power after decades in the wilderness was partially enabled by the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Burnham’s rule is remembered by most Americans for the permission he gave to the People’s Temple cult to settle in Guyana, where it eventually committed mass suicide in November 1978. But Burnham’s internal rule is more memorable for heinous deeds such as the June 1980 assassination of Walter Rodney, one of the world’s great progressive thinkers on economics and development strategies.

Jagan’s resumption of power in the wake of the discrediting of Burnham’s chosen successor, Desmond Hoyte, was a development welcomed rapturously by many both inside and outside Guyana. From 1992 to 1997, Jagan presided genially and competently as an elder statesman; even some old polemical antagonists such as the Nobel Prize-winning Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul, acknowledged in Jagan’s last years that he was a person to be immensely esteemed. Jagan’s charisma and reputation assured that his wife, the American-born Janet Rosenberg-Jagan, would succeed him.

Though broadened ideologically—no longer pursuing a Marxist and redistributionist party line—the party had a harder time branching out from its core constituency of Indo-Guyanese. Thus leaders of the next generation, exemplified by Ramotar, the Afro-Guyanese Samuel Hinds, and Bharrat Jagdeo, the PPP managed to normalize itself beyond the personal authority of the Jagans. Still, the party exerted an unproductive stranglehold over major Guyanese institutions. Moreover, the benefits of economic liberalization were not shared by most of the Guyanese people, as corruption prevailed and transparency languished. The incoming president, former Brigadier-General David Granger, Granger made himself a viable candidate by his clean record and competent demeanor. He also made strong efforts at outreach to the Guyanese diaspora.

This diaspora is proportionately one of the largest in the world, with a sizable presence both in New York and London. Indeed, this emigration has raised Guyana’s profile worldwide in a way that nothing happening inside the country has for years. Diaspora novelists such as Roy A. K. Heath, Wilson Harris, and Fred D’Aguiar, have made notable contributions to world literature. In general, many more Afro-Guyanese have gone to London; more Indo-Guyanese to New York, where they live in, among other neighborhoods, Ozone Park, the childhood home of COHA’s director. What is encouraging is that diaspora voting has not seemed to break down on the racial and ethnic lines that voting within Guyana often has: the experience of migration and, frequently, of racism in their new lands has made Guyanese abroad more nuanced in their sense of what constitutes a compatriot, even as their Guyanese identity is only strengthened by driving their stakes in other lands.

The Guyanese diaspora are ineligible to vote in Guyanese elections, but they bear a tremendous weight in the Guyanese real and virtual public sphere, particularly through social media such as the vital and loquacious Stabroek News Twitter feed. That David Granger, in February 2015, went to Brooklyn, addressing an audience largely Indo-Guyanese, and pleaded with the audience not just to use their influence on their relatives at home to vote for him but to come home and use their new-found acumen, expertise, and diverse world connections to help rebuild Guyana, was an act of audacity, daring, and generosity. The Afro-Guyanese Granger made clear that he wished to be a president for all Guyanese Indian and African, domiciled and diaspora. This was not only morally upstanding but also a politically sharp move, and although Ramotar surely won the majority of Indo-Guyanese votes Granger made sufficient inroads into this constituency to win compellingly.

That the Carter Center chose to monitor this election and not the previous two in 2006 and 2011, and that former US President Jimmy Carter himself, at the age of ninety, went to Georgetown to see the situation for himself (in a visit that was curtailed by illness) spoke to the real possibility of electoral fraud and reluctance by the incumbent to depart. Cheddi Jagan, in a telephone discussion with COHA’s director, Larry Birns, just before Jagan’s death in 1997, hailed President Carter, along with Birns himself, as a principal international backer of Guyanese democracy. In 2015, though, Carter was clearly concerned that the PPP was reluctant to yield the reins of power whatever the result.

After years being denied its rightful place in politics by the Burnham dictatorship, this generation of PPP leaders now feels entitled to rule. They must be gently, maybe even politely, yet firmly persuaded to step down and yield to the will of the people, and should realize that their best place now in Guyanese politics is a vital, engaged opposition. The PPP, even in opposition, has much to contribute to Guyana’s place in the world, as is indicated with the relatively friendly relationship between President Ramotar and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, which could help Guyana continue to be in proportional dialogue with both Venezuela and the United States.

Though Guyana is marked by ethnic difference between two nearly equivalent population blocs; there has not been much ethnic violence in Guyana. Next year, Guyana will celebrate fifty years of independence. Though there have been many disappointments in this half century, a stable transition between ruling parties would be an auspicious sign for this anniversary, and might even herald the future Granger envisioned of Guyana becoming once again a magnet for its own diaspora. Guyana’s writers have always seen beyond ethnic division—Roy Heath, himself Afro-Guyanese, wrote his greatest book, The Shadow Bride, about an Indo-Guyanese man. Guyana’s great natural resources, combined with the industriousness and resourcefulness of its people, give the nation tremendous potential in the twenty-first century. It would be wise for President Ramotar to refrain from exploiting ethnic tensions and, as urged by both the European Union and the US State Department, yield with dignity to a Granger administration. Incoming President Granger, in turn, might be well advised to offer some sort of carrot to Ramotar and the PPP, something short of the shared governance recently offered to discontented losing parties in Afghanistan and Kenya, but a gesture that would, without compromising the stated electoral will of the Guyanese people, help make the PPP more comfortable with its opposition status.

The Guyanese people have spoken decisively; their leaders need to honor the results.

Nicholas Birns, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs; He has most recently coedited The Contemporary Spanish American Novel Bloomsbury, 2013

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Featured photo: Guyanese Parliament. Accessed from Wikimedia.