As political parties marched to Georgetown’s City Hall on April 7 to present their official list of candidates to the Guyana Elections Commission, it signalled that the political gridlock that crippled Guyana’s representative democracy for the past several months was nearing its end. But who is the incumbent PPP/C Government, and what legacy is a new, emboldened opposition party seeking to unseat at the May 11 elections?
GEORGETOWN, Guyana — Led by President Donald Romotar, Guyana’s PPP/C Government has been stained by allegations of corruption, abuse of state resources and state victimisation of dissenters, among other things. Observers have further accused the PPP/C of subverting democracy, due to a failure to hold Local Government elections in over two decades, and a perceived failure to assent to Opposition-approved bills, in protest of its party’s reduced influence in the legislature.
Last November, President Ramotar, fearing an unprecedented parliamentary motion of no-confidence against his the PPP/C Government, prorogued all sittings of the National Assembly, dissolved the Parliament, and called elections for May 11, 2015.
The breaking point that triggered the confidence motion was the decision by Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh to authorise spending in 2014 of GY$4.5B (US$21M), after the Opposition-controlled Parliament disapproved of the spending of those monies.
Outraged Opposition members called for Singh to be taken before Parliament’s Privileges Committee, and for the Guyana Police Force to investigate what they deemed as “illegal spending.”
The motion was introduced by the Alliance For Change (AFC), one of Guyana’s younger political parties, which first contested the 2006 national elections. Supported by a frustrated portion of the population that hoped for a third party to break the perceived racial divide in Guyana’s politics, the AFC managed to secure 7 out of 65 seats in the National Assembly after the 2011 elections.
The PPP/C Government’s 32 seats in the 65-seat House were not enough to overpower support for the motion, given a further 27 seats by the Opposition Partnership for National Unity (APNU) coalition of parties.
Image credit: News Source Guyana
Parliamentary suspension: After his suspension of Parliament, President Ramotar could not convince the wider public that the decision was in their best interest. Protesters rallied outside the Parliament Building in Georgetown as the Guyana Police Force blocked the gates and secured the perimeter. The commotion could be heard inside the Chambers where the Assembly’s Speaker, Opposition Parliamentarians and parliamentary officers, the media, and public spectators gathered to condemn the decision.
Speaker of the National Assembly, Raphael Trotman, called the action more distasteful than the suspension of Guyana’s Constitution in 1950 by the British Government. He added that “the illegality [of the President’s decision] is compounded by the fact that no certain date has been given to the restoration [of the affairs of Parliament].”
Similar sentiments came from Opposition Leader and retired Brigadier of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), David Granger, who said it was “a dark day for democracy in Guyana.” Granger, who leads the majority in Guyana’s parliament, bemoaned that President Ramotar’s executive decree had engineered a “constitutional crisis.”
CARICOM’s response to the situation left more to be desired. A release from the Secretariat in Guyana noted that the Council of Ministers during their 35th meeting last year was “satisfied that the prorogation of Parliament was in keeping with the provisions of the Guyana Constitution and did not constitute a breach of the Commonwealth Charter.”
But on the international front, Guyana’s allies in the Commonwealth, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom were dissatisfied with the move, and called for President Ramotar to rethink his position.
Since then, two US congressional leaders, Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke – both from New York districts – had petitioned US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to reassess Washington’s policy in Georgetown as the prorogation continued.
Decades of delay in local government elections: Although Local Government elections are slated to be held every three years, the PPP/C Government has not called an election since 1994. Instead, the Government exercised its power to dissolve local government bodies, replacing them with Interim Management Committees (IMCs). IMCs are comprised mostly of PPP/C appointees, a decision which has sparked tensions between citizens and their local government representatives.
Since gaining the majority in Parliament, the political Opposition had managed to propose four bills to reform the system. President Ramotar approved three of the bills, but withheld his assent to the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, which would have stripped the power of the Local Government Minister to dissolve local government authorities and instead vest that power in a Local Government Commission.
Twenty-one years later, there is still no indication as to when Guyanese will go to the polls to elect their local representatives, since the country’s laws prohibit National and Local Government elections being held in the same year.
Foreign relations under the PPP/C: The PPP/C Government is least likely to take the advice of the international community, considering their hostility towards interventions from Western governments. This became apparent when Acting Foreign Affairs Minister, Priya Manickchand, berated US Ambassador, Brent Hardt, at a July 4 Independence reception last year at the Ambassador’s Georgetown residence.[videoembed type=”youtube” url=”https://youtu.be/FquuMvG_Gl0″]
Manickchand called the Ambassador out for his position on the PPP/C Administration’s failure to hold Local Government Elections, and USAID’s US$1.2M Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) Project – which focused on building civil engagement with the National Assembly, as well as strengthening women and youth involvement in the democratic process.
As one reads [the US Ambassador’s] diatribe against our President, our outrage mounts at the liberties he has taken with diplomatic conventions, commitment to accuracy and sense of occasion. This situation, I report, is intolerable.
The Ambassador has been associated with a dedicated attack on the President and the government on the holding of Local Government elections. The Ambassador has been supported in his… this ill-conceived venture, by the Opposition section of the media and his colleagues in the diplomatic corps. We have not lost any efforts in correcting their hopelessly jaundiced views of the situation.
— Priya Manickhand, PPP/C Minister
Acting on sentiments that the LEAD Project was an attempt to subvert Guyana’s sovereignty, the Government in 2014 revoked the work permit of the project’s head, Glenn Bradbury, declaring him persona non grata, and ordering him to leave the country.
When Bradbury was initially posted to Guyana, then US Ambassador Brent Hardt said the LEAD Project was designed considering that Guyana’s new dispensation, with a minority Government and Opposition-controlled legislature, “offered hope for a ‘win-win’ scenario for the people of Guyana.” And as he acknowledged that the influence of both sides of the National Assembly were now evenly matched, Hardt said in 2013, “this new configuration would pose many challenges which, if not handled with a spirit of compromise and a focus on the national interest, could lead to stalemate and frustration.”
Months after the event at the US Ambassador’s residence, the outgoing UK High Commissioner to Guyana, Andrew Ayre, like his US counterpart, was labelled a “pariah” by Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon for expressing concerns on the prorogation of Guyana’s Parliament. The Ramotar Administration has since defended its decision to give “feral blasts” and openly shame Ambassadors for commenting on Guyana’s domestic affairs.
The departing UK envoy expressed concern about the stand taken by the Guyana Government, as he said it painted Guyana poorly in the international community.
Relations with Venezuela: The US and the UK, both Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, have long aided Guyana against Venezuela’s controversial claim to Guyana’s Essequibo region, which comprises two-thirds of the country’s 83,000 square miles.
The earliest confrontation between Guyana and Venezuela was in 1966, the year of Guyana’s independence, when a well-armed group of Venezuelan soldiers, along with civilians, occupied a portion of the Ankoko Islands on Guyana’s border with Venezuela.
The push-back from the Guyana Government under Prime Minister Forbes Burnham was successful, and the two countries have since enjoyed some stability in trade of rice and oil. Still, under the regime of President Nicholas Maduro in 2015, Guyana’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging the Venezuelan Government to desist “stymieing the development of Guyana and its people” by blocking oil exploration off Guyana’s coast by Exxon Mobil Corporation.
The Maduro Government has since responded to that claim calling it “unacceptable and unjust.” While rebuking the accusations as “false”, Venezuelan authorities maintained that the exploration area falls within the disputed maritime boundary of Essequibo.
With a perception that the Guyana Government is steadily eroding relations with Western powers that have aided its border dispute case, the APNU and AFC have since distanced themselves from the anti-diplomatic attitude of the Ramotar Administration – making several overtures to the diplomatic corps.
A meeting between the Opposition Coalition APNU-AFC and members of Guyana’s Diplomatic community
APNU and AFC Coalition: Since the dissolution of Parliament and the proclamation of elections, the APNU and the AFC have joined forces under a Valentine’s Day agreement called the “Cummingsburg Accord”.
Signed in the Georgetown community of Cummingsburg at the historical Cara Lodge Hotel, the now coalesced “APNU+AFC” alliance will move into the elections with Opposition Leader David Granger as the Presidential Candidate, and AFC Parliamentarian Moses Nagamootoo in the Prime Ministerial post.
Pushing the idea of shared governance and a Government of national unity, the Granger-Nagamootoo election ticket promises to end Guyana’s divisive politics based on race voting and fear-mongering.
The Opposition beats its drums at six in the morning and says let us throw out the Coolie people.
— Bharrat Jagdeo, former President of Guyana
As a recent example of the racial polarisation that has typified Guyanese politics, former PPP/C President, Bharrat Jagdeo, came under fire for his racially-charged comment at a commemoration ceremony for the death of Former Presidents Cheddi and Janet Jagan, two of the PPP’s founding leaders. Jagdeo told thousands of Indo-Guyanese gathered at the ceremony that “the Opposition beats its drums at six in the morning and says let us throw out the coolie people”, in the same constituency that shifted support from the PPP/C to the AFC, following Moses Nagamootoo’s entry into the AFC.
PPP/C, APNU+AFC vision: The PPP/C’s campaign messages have largely focused on the theme of continuity, as it hopes to regain the Parliamentary majority it lost in 2011. The party has reportedly hired a media expert, Joshua Morrow, out of the United States to improve its public image.
Meanwhile, the APNU+AFC alliance hopes to bring a number of systemic changes to Guyana’s power structure to promote accountability and transparency. A proposal has been set which will see the reduction of powers held by the President, with some of that power delegated to the Prime Minister and 3 Vice-Presidents.
APNU+AFC final rally, May 10, 2015. Image credit: News Source Guyana
Since its formation, the APNU+AFC alliance has received praises from a larger portion of Guyana’s population, which sees the party as a step in the right direction. One of the most notable praises came from Dr. Cheddi Jagan Jr., son of Former Presidents Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan.
Daughter of the late Forbes Burham, former President of Guyana, and the son of the late Dr. Chedai Jagan, also a former President, at an APNU+AFC rally. Image credit: News Source Guyana
The young Jagan has expressed that the current PPP/C has deviated from the vision of the late Dr. Jagan, whose policy coming in as President in 1992 was one of a “clean and lean government.” The late Dr. Jagan was well-known for his humility and socialist thinking, with a philosophy grounded in one of his more famous quotes: “We must set our faces sternly against corruption and extravagance. We cannot have a Cadillac style living with a donkey-cart economy.”
But former President Jagdeo, who increased his own pension and whose luxury lifestyle has been a matter engaging press attention frequently retorts to such criticisms. Another offspring of the Jagan legacy, daughter Nadira Jagan-Brancier has spoke out against Jagdeo’s claim in a letter to the media saying that her parents “did not use their position for personal gains.” “Due primarily to their high moral and ethical standards, they chose to live a very simple and comfortable lifestyle. They did not lead an extravagant life,” she added.
Victimisation concerns: Sentiments of state victimisation have grown since July 2012 when ranks of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) shot and killed three citizens in the Linden mining town, during a mass protest against a Government-proposed 200 per-cent hike in the community’s electricity rates.
More recently, the murder of political activist Courtney Crum-Ewing has sparked similar theories of state involvement by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), since the deceased reportedly made a number of complaints to the Police that he was receiving threats from the ruling party. The reports were not independently verified, and the ruling party – for its part – has strongly condemned the activist’s killing.
Image credit: Kaiteur News
Crum-Ewing had staged a one-man protest for weeks in late 2014 outside the office of Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall, calling for his resignation amid a published recording of the Nandlall threatening the use of weapons against the Editor of Kaieteur News – Guyana’s leading independent newspaper, and a staunch critic of the current regime.
Amnesty International has since taken interest in the matter, calling for authorities to protect journalists and rights activists. The human rights watchdog expressed concern that the case, in a pre-elections atmosphere, could “exacerbate political tensions, spark further violence and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, last month, the incumbent PPP/C Health Minister, Dr. Bheri Ramsarran, chastised women’s activist Sherlina Nageer (right), telling her to “shut up”, calling her an “idiot” and a “piece of shit”, after being challenged on Guyana’s high rates of maternal and child mortality. In an embarrassingly public incident, Ramsarran summoned police to remove Nageer, telling reporters that he “would slap her ass […] just for the fun” — a threat that alarmed many in Guyana, especially given the high level of sexual and domestic violence against women in the country.
With the lead up to the May 11 polls promising a tight race, Guyanese can appreciate that the last four years have been trying at best. There is consensus however that the only certainty is that whichever way the pendulum swings, both sides of the political divide are hoping for a new day.
Sherlina Nageer image credit: News Source Guyana