‘Contextualising coalition politics’

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One of the big complaints about the management capacity of former president David Granger has to do with his handling of APNU+AFC coalition relations. It is my contention that Guyana is in transition from a state where because of its numerical strength, one ethnic group could win political power, to a multi-ethnic society in which there are a few but only two substantial ethnic groups.  In the future, therefore, the need to manage coalition-type relationships is likely to increase and one should seek to establish some common understanding of the legitimate democratic possibilities of this developing situation, identify the obstacles in their way and devise arrangements to encourage their  development. With this in mind, I will in this and another article focus on important efforts at ethnic political cooperation in modern Guyana.

Coalitions can be formal or informal, but experience indicates a preference for the former with a written coalition agreement that some refer to as the bible of the coalition. These agreements are expected to be honoured if the coalition is to survive and the parties keep and expand their support. Given its ethnic configuration, by the late 1940s, when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was being established, race/ethnicity had already become a problem and Guyana’s modern political history is littered with efforts at ethnic cooperation because our political leaders were aware that ethnic cooperation is vital for the country to growth and develop in a timely manner.  This is not to say that they grasped or that many present-day Guyanese leaders grasp the vicissitudes of the problem  adumbrated by John Stuart Mill in 1861: ‘Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities.  (Where) the united public opinion necessary to the working of a representative government cannot exist. …   The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country.  An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another.’

Those forming the PPP were socialist-orientated for whom the support of the African urban proletariat was considered important for winning national independence and building socialism. But the Africans middle class political leadership was not easy to dislodge and Forbes Burnham, who was studying in London at the time, was recruited to help accomplish the task with the promise that he would be named the chairman of the new party. He took this to mean that he would become the leader but upon returning to Guyana he came to understand that Cheddi Jagan was to be the leader and the internal dissension to which this gave rise contributed significantly to the PPP split of 1955, which put paid to the first important modern attempt at national ethnic unity. What it also taught is that although the leaders recognised the importance of ethnic unity to the process of nation building, it took second place in the jostle for personal political authority.

With Cheddi Jagan as its leader, the PPP won the national elections of 1953. But four and a half months into the government, the British colonial authorities, claiming that the government was communist-orientated, suspended the constitution and threw the PPP out of office. In  1946 ,after the Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin gave a speech suggesting that war between capitalism and communism was inevitable, George Kennan, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote his ‘Long Telegram’, which called for the containment of communism, and this became the global policy of the West. Although the PPP may not have been a solidly communist party, it did have persons of various shades of socialism in its ranks. Indeed, Forbes Burnham was referred to as the young Tito (Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the president of Yugoslavia and first secretary general of the Non-Aligned Movement, was considered a moderate communist).  Between 1953 and 1964, when the  PPP lost government, the British used all manner of underhand methods such as gerrymandering constituencies, encouraging disturbances and the introduction of proportional representation (PR), and capitalising upon the split in the PPP and the formation of the rightwing United Force in 1960 to prevent the PPP taking government.


After the split Forbes Burnham sought to solidify an African base by merging with the African middle class parties and individuals but for a time his socialist orientated PPP/Burnhamite colleagues would have none of it and they lost the elections of 1957. However, as the political environment became polluted by Apan Jhaat politics – which Cheddi Jagan accused the African middle-class parties of initiating – the merger  took place for the 1961 elections which Burnham’s PNC lost, but the number of votes it won demonstrated in no uncertain terms that with a PR electoral system and a coalition with the capitalist-orientated, United Force (UF), the PPP would lose government.

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