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I ended last week’s column with the PNC coalescing with the African middle class United Democratic Party (UDP) for the 1961 general elections, which made it obvious that if the British were to have introduced proportional representation and the PNC coalesce with the newly formed United Force (UF), the PPP would have lost government.
Although the British were differently motivated, the first-past-the-post electoral system is usually highly inequitable and not suited to countries with Guyana’s type of ethnic problem. In the 1961 elections, the PPP received 42.6% of the vote and gained 20 of the available 35 seats, to the PNC’s 41% of the vote and 11 seats and the UF’s 16.9 % of the vote and 4 seats. The British introduced PR for the 1964 elections and the PPP received 45.8% of the vote and 24 seats, the PNC 41% and 22 seats and the UF 12.4% and 7 seats. The PNC and UF then coalesced.
During the constitutional discourse of this period, the British placed shared governance, another form of political cooperation, on the table but Cheddi Jagan balked at it. Having been branded a communist by the West, which was doing all it could to prevent communists from taking government worldwide, Jagan, still feeling secure in his ethnic majority base, held on to his idealistic notion of majority rule in the political process. Perhaps this is what he meant when he referred to his behaviour in this period as reflecting ‘youthful exuberance’.
The PNC that took government with the UF was largely an outgrowth of the PPP, Premier Forbes Burnham himself had been recruited to be a part of the PPP because he was a moderate communist. While he had to accept the ideological parameters of the West in so far as relations with Soviet communism was concerned, he and many others – to be found in the non-aligned movement for example – did not believe that it was necessary to drop their commitment to socialism. Thus, taking advantage of the specific context that brought it to government, the PNC manipulated every election for the next 30 years to quickly rid itself of the capitalist UF and create the policy space to carry forward its socialist experiment.
Ronald Ragan came to the US presidency in 1981 with an international anticommunist agenda and as he was leaving office in 1989 the Berlin Wall was falling, international communism was disintegrating and the existential threat to the ‘free world’ was no more! Right up to his death in 1985, Forbes Burnham, who had declared his party’s allegiance to Marxism/Leninism in 1976, came under tremendous pressure from the US, but with the fall of Russian Marxism the PNC was no longer essential and ‘democracy’ could again be prioritised.
While Jagan’s Indian constituency was the majority, he was thought to be a communist and this led him to associate with groups such as the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) – a broad anti-PNC arrangement that included the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). These experiences taught him that governing successfully in Guyana required that concessions be made to the other classes and ethnicities. But here again, as with the initial formation of the PPP in 1953, who will lead resulted in the PPP abandoning the PCD and the formation of the Civic: a group of individuals Jagan hand-picked with the clear understanding that if they won government the PPP would always hold the presidency and Civic the prime ministership. The PPP/Civic won the elections in 1992 and remained in office for 23 years, but like the PNC, economically Guyana stagnated for nearly a decade and it did not make any positive impact on the ethnic situation!
The Alliance for Change (AFC) was established in 2005 to break the stranglehold of the two major ethnic parties and change the ethnic dynamics of politics in Guyana. In the 2006 national elections, it took 8% of the votes, mainly from the PNC. Perhaps this also lead to the PNC coalescing with the WPA and some smaller parties to become A Partnership for National Unity (APNU). Confronted by these forces, in the 2011 elections the PPP lost its parliamentary majority but won the plurality that gave it the presidency/government. Minority governments can succeed but they must be prepared to make serious concessions to the other parliamentary parties, and the PPP/C’s unwillingness to do so led to many governance difficulties.
APNU and the AFC formed a pre-elections coalition and won government in 2015. The PPP/C claimed that the elections had been rigged and sought to get the result reversed by way of an elections petition. Absurdly, the petition had not been determined by the time of the 2020 elections that brought the PPP/C back to government.
The law allows for parties to make pre-elections agreements to join the votes they acquire and share any seats they are allocated, and during the process of the 2020 elections such an agreement was made between three small parties that won a single seat in the National Assembly.
The APNU+AFC coalition claims that elections manipulation was responsible for their removal in 2020 and the matter is still before the court.
Institutions, laws and political traditions do affect coalition possibilities and have done so throughout modern Guyanese political history. My next intervention on this topic will discuss some of these instances to set the stage for establishing a common understanding of the democratic possibilities of coalitions and encouraging their development.