Ethnicity and Party Politics in Guyana: The birth of the First PPP

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I start my analysis from the conclusion that there have been two PPP’s. The first one which arose from an attempt to build a multi-ethnic Independence Movement lasted from 1950 to 1956. It ended with the two splits in 1955 and 1956. The second PPP (1956 to the present) has its genesis in the Jaganite PPP which represented one of the two factions that emerged after the 1955 split of the first PPP.

The birth of the first People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950 as a multi-ethnic party had prompted optimism that the country’s post-colonial politics would avoid the ethnic conflict that bedeviled other ethnically plural societies. However, less than two years after the electoral victory in 1953, the PPP split into two factions–one led by the leading African executive Forbes Burnham and the other by the foremost East Indian leader Cheddi Jagan. What appeared to be an ideological split with ethnic undertones evolved into overt ethnic polarization after the Jagan faction suffered another split that resulted in the exit of its remaining African leaders. By the time of political independence in 1966, the country had descended into violent ethnic conflict which has had a lasting impact on politics and society.

As was the case with slavery, the arrival of East Indian, Portuguese and Chinese indentured laborers after emancipation was an economic venture. The indentured laborers were meant to replace the labor of the formerly enslaved Africans who had moved off the sugar plantation and settled in villages. The Africans viewed the new arrivals as competition that undermined their ability to sell their labor for decent wages. Soon the indentured servants developed their own negative view of Africans as being lazy. This mutual suspicion was exaggerated by the deliberate divide and rule strategy of the colonial rulers. The outcome was open hostility between the two groups, especially between the Africans and the East Indians who had become the dominant indentured group.

But since both groups were exploited by the colonial masters, they often overcame their suspicions to present a common resistance to colonialism. Walter Rodney highlighted this tendency between 1881 and 1905 when African and Indian workers engaged in several mass actions against the plantocracy. This multi-ethnic solidarity reached its pinnacle in the 1930s when as part of the “riots” that rocked the Anglophone Caribbean region Indian and African workers participated in industrial and other mass action for better wages and living conditions.

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It was this spirit of ethnic solidarity that the PPP hoped to capture as independence became imminent. The party deliberately ensured that its top leadership comprised representatives from both groups, and it utilized a class-based rhetoric. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, an Indian Guyanese, who was instrumental in the party’s formation, was named leader and Forbes Burnham, an African Guyanese who had just returned from studies abroad, was appointed chairman or the de facto deputy leader.

The multiethnic image of the party, however, masked the fragility of the coalition. The chief concern was the top spot. Some Africans in the leadership thought that Burnham was the better candidate and did not hide their feelings. At the party Congress held before the crucial 1953 election, Burnham made a bid to wrest the leadership from Jagan. But he was thwarted by Eusi Kwayana (then known as Sydney King), an African leader and ally of Jagan who successfully defended Jagan against the no- confidence motion brought by Burnham’s supporters.

The party, therefore, entered the 1953 election as a fragile coalition united mostly in its desire to win Kwayana and two other members proposed that instead of trying to win a majority in the National Assembly, the party should aim to win just enough seats to give it a strong voice. The reasoning was that such an outcome would give the party more time to strengthen the fragile multiethnic unity before eventually taking office. The proposal was rejected by the executive including Burnham and Jagan. Kwayana’s thinking was influenced not only by the ethnic division in the leadership but also what was happening among the party’s supporters. While most Indian supporters were satisfied with Jagan as the top leader, they had begun to express concern over the number of African candidates on the PPP’s electoral slate, particularly those who were contesting predominantly Indian constituencies. On the other hand, African supporters were not happy that the maximum leader was not African.

These responses may have been influenced in part by ethnic appeals by parties opposed to the PPP. Some Indian-centric parties in collusion with the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA), accused Jagan of sacrificing Indian interests in his pursuit of socialism and unity with Africans. On the African side an African party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), with close links to the Africanist League of Colored People (LDC) argued that Burnham and other African PPP leaders were being manipulated by the Indian leadership which sought Indian domination.

The PPP, however, overcame these criticisms and won the elections with an overwhelming majority of the contested seats. The victory was understandably hailed as a triumph of class over ethnicity. But the euphoria was marred by another crisis over the position of maximum leader. As political leader of the party, it was obvious that Jagan would become head of government. But Burnham had other ideas. He demanded the position of leader and refused to cooperate in appointing the cabinet.

Some members attempted to break the deadlock by proposing Kwayana as the compromise leader. While Burnham expressed support Jagan was noncommittal. Kwayana, however, declined the position and supported Jagan partly because he felt that Jagan had done nothing to warrant his ouster and partly because he did not want to be viewed to be part of an African cabal that ousted the Indian leader. Jagan eventually prevailed.



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