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As the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) prepares for its congress, it is the only political party that could stand between the citizenry and the creation of a lasting People’s Progressive Party (PPP) autocracy in Guyana. But to achieve this the PNCR itself must change tack and express a liberal vision appropriate for Guyana’s complex political reality.
Universally, the struggle for leadership usually grabs the headlines, but as we have seen so many times, leadership can be deadly if located in archaic platitudes rather than a progressive vision. The PNCR will do Guyana a favour if out of its congress comes a collective, preferably written and strongly endorsed, leadership vision of where it intends to take this country. Notwithstanding its perennial advocacy of ‘democracy’, the PPP has indicated quite strongly where it is going, and that pathway suggests what the PNCR needs to avoid.
The 2020 elections clearly demonstrated that the democracy to which the PPP is committed is ‘majority rule’ regardless of how that majority is acquired. Furthermore, its autocratic behaviour since then provides two confirmations. The party is continuing its mission to achieve political dominance in Guyana and even if it is the outcome of free and fair elections, democratic rule does not necessarily lead to good governance. As to the latter, the eminent political theorist Samuel P Huntington stated, ‘Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. (but) Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. …. Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, … [some of the others are] effective citizen control over policies, responsible government, honesty and openness in politics, informed and rational deliberation, equal participation and power.’
The historical trajectory of the PPP is to achieve political dominance. From the inception, the Jagans sought to control the party and then by way of their ethnic majority dominate the political space in Guyana. The quarrel with Forbes Burnham that ultimately led to the split in the party was over the leadership. The PPP’s refusal to join the West Indian Federation was largely because it thought that its ethnic base would be diluted in an essentially African federation. When the British offered shared governance, as they did in India and Cyprus, the PNC accepted but the PPP rejected the offer, only to change course when it became clear that international capital would not relent and that their approach had helped to entrench the PNC in office.
I am willing to allow that initially the younger Jagans saw their reliance on race/ethnicity opportunistically – as providing an opportunity for them to improve the conditions of the working people in general. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a vital element in Marxism/Leninism and the Jagans, who were communist-orientated, saw themselves as having a unique opportunity. Their fellow travelers had to suppress ‘democracy’ and establish one party states, but their ethnic majority gave them a ‘democratic’ opportunity to entrench themselves as the vanguard of the working class. All the above mentioned relationships they refused would have diluted this ideological possibility.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1985, taking world Marxism along with it, and governance fortune struck for the PPP, in the euphoria of the day little did most Guyanese realise that while communism was gone, given the country’s ethnic configuration the dictatorial possibilities remained, and in a competitive political environment could become a recipe for disaster. The Jagans put the blame for initiating ethnic politics at the door of the African middle class parties of the 1950s. Be that as it may, as indicated above, believing it could take advantage of its ethnic base, the PPP refused the opportunity to form a national government and thus contributed significantly to ethnic political radicalization in Guyana.
Any liberal democratic leadership of the PNC must eschew political dominance. Winning elections does not necessarily lead to – and in our ethnic context has not resulted and is unlikely to result in – good governance and progress. Sensibly recognising its ethnic base, the major present task of the PNCR is to reconfigure the polity to bring equitability, security etc. to all ethnic and other groups. It must properly navigate its context if it is to provide a solution to Guyana’s decades-long stultifying political problem. To reemphasize, it must attempt to normalize liberal democratic politics in Guyana’s abnormal political conditions.
Among other things, it must seek to protect individual and minority rights against the tyranny of the state and the majority; place limits on the exercise of executive power; ensure that all social groups can participate equitably in the political arena; insist that there be equitable distribution of resources across groups; enhance civil society organizations and participation; improve the authority of and representation and participation in local and regional governments; ensure that the common good takes precedence over parochial and ethnic interests in political decision-making and that at all levels there is respectful dialogue among informed and competent participants who are also open to persuasion.