A history of political alliances in Guyana: 1953-1997
By Hazel Woolford
April 30, 2000
THIS article seeks to examine the status of political alliances in Guyana, during the second half of the twentieth century.
It will be noted, that there was no scope for independents to contest elections, after 1953, and that the major political parties, only opted for alliances when their power appeared threatened, or when they were in the opposition.
In 1951, the Waddington Constitution provided for universal adult suffrage in British Guiana. This historic step in our political history, meant that all Guyanese who were 21 years old and over, had the opportunity to vote, at the 1953 General Election.
It was this election which sharply etched Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham in Guiana's political landscape. Jagan had successfully contested in the 1947 elections as an Independent candidate. But the 1953 general election was different. Jagan had become leader of the PPP, and the chairman was Forbes Burnham.
While Burnham had not previously contested for a seat in the Legislative Assembly, he had participated in the municipal elections. Burnham had been elected a member of the Georgetown Town Council in 1952. Hence, he had a taste of the cut and thrust of politics.
Both of these men were charismatic leaders who had established a strong relationship with the very militant trade unions. However, in the 1950s, they could not win the general elections easily, unless they joined forces. Jagan controlled the rural Indian votes while Burnham exercised a strong influence on the voting patterns in the urban centres, particularly in Georgetown. It was Norman Cameron's opinion that the coalition of Burnham and Jagan was an alliance of the major races and the two socialist ideologies.
On April 27, 1953, the PPP won 18 of the 24 seats in the lower chamber of the Legislature. This political party remained in the government, until October, when the constitution was suspended. But even before the suspension of the constitution, there was evidence that the Jaganite and Burnhamite alliance was falling apart. On May 4, the second Vice-Chairman of the PPP, Mr Clinton Wong, had resigned, because of an `irresponsible and unmanageable element, which had entered the party'. In addition, Peter Simms claimed that Forbes Burnham had been misled. Burnham had thought that he would become the leader of the House, and thus, he was disappointed when he was named the Chairman of the party. But this latest conflict did not come to the fore until 1955, when the Burnhamite PPP faction broke away. They were subsequently expelled from the party on February 15, 1955. Even after the split, Jagan and Burnham, contended that they were the leaders of the party.
One of the main contentions which the Burnhamite faction had always expressed about their relationship with the Jaganite PPP, was that they were never made to feel that they were equal partners. They claimed that there were many times when secret meetings had been held without the knowledge of Burnham, or without inviting him. The question of parity of political parties in political alliances, would continue to remain a major issue, whenever future discussions were held, particularly between the PPP and the PNC during the period from 1961 to 1985. However, the major consequences of the Burnhamite and Jaganite PPP split were that one witnessed a return of racial voting, with a call for Apaan Jaat as well as demands of the partition of the country.
In 1957, the Burnhamite PPP merged with the NDP to form the PNC. Subsequently, in 1959, the PNC merged with the (UDP), the United Democratic Party, despite the difference in ideological approach. In defence of the alliance with the UDP, the PNC leadership informed the young critics in the party that they needed to coalesce with the other parties, if they were to achieve political independence.
In February 1960, attempts were made at establishing a grand alliance or nationalist government with the PNC and those splinter parties included the National Labour Front, the Progressive Labour Party and the United Force. However, these efforts failed.
The United Force, which was led by Peter D'Aguiar, had submitted a 21-point letter to the PNC in which they had recommended that Burnham should step down as leader for at least 18 months, and allow D'Aguiar to be the leader of the alliance. One of the other recommendations which the UF had made, was that the two parties should establish a ruling committee of 15 persons, nine of whom should be Burnhamite and six D'Aguiarites.
The PNC had recommended a bicameral legislative, a form of proportional representation as recommended by the Constituent Assembly, internal self-government with a view to joining the West Indian Federation. But their efforts at forming the alliance failed.
In 1963, Duncan Sandys had suggested that a national government should be formed comprising five members of the PPP, five PNC and two UF. But Guyanese as well as Mr Sandys recognised that a coalition on care-taker government would only succeed if certain conditions were met. These involved first, the ability of the individual leaders within the coalition to rise above personalities; second, the necessity to form a compromise between socialists and capitalists; and finally, that it must not appear that the PPP was interested in introducing totalitarian dictatorship and effecting coups to seize power and enforce its point of view. However, the PPP leadership objected to any alliance which included the United Force, because of the party's capitalist ideology.
An examination of the period under discussion had also shown that the PPP had always displayed an interest in forming an alliance with the PNC, because of their espousal of the socialist ideology. But the factor of equal distribution of power would continue to influence the formation of alliances or coalitions.
Cheddi Jagan had always stated that while he was not opposed to alliances or coalitions, he would only form such a government if the PPP won a majority. Hence, the PPP wanted a majority in the Cabinet as well as on government-sanctioned boards and commissions. On the other hand, even when the PNC leadership initiated discussions on forming PNC/PPP coalitions, the PNC pointed out that there had to be an equal distribution of ministries between the two parties, and an equal distribution of nominations to the various advisory and executive boards which operated under the government.
In 1963, Mr Burnham had argued that the PNC would only agree to the following:- (1) a disproportionate rate of the allocation of ministries, in which six were given to the PPP and five to the PNC, and (2) that Dr. Jagan retain the Premiership, if the PNC were allowed to have the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Jagan rejected the PNC's proposal, arguing that if the Ministry of Home Affairs was allocated to the PNC in a coalition, there was always the possibility that the PNC could stage a coup, and the PPP would be overthrown. It was this problem of distrust, which had plagued the Burnhamite/Jaganite alliance of 1953. In April 1955, Forbes Burnham wrote:-
"If an individual did not agree in every minute detail with the ideological convictions of the dominant section in the executive, he became a stooge, a fraud, and coward, a sell out, and tolerating him was a necessary evil while the contempt and disregard for him was very thinly veiled, if at all...
"In an alliance, the opinions of each ally have to be taken into account, if only for purposes of deciding on the basis of agreement.
However, the recognition of the problems involved in establishing coalitions and nationalist governments did not deter the major parties from forming alliances with smaller parties.
After the first elections were held under the electoral system of Proportional Representation in 1964, Peter D'Aguiar's UF joined with the PNC to form a coalition government. In the early period of its existence, Prime Minister Burnham observed that although the PNC was socialist and the UF right wing, they had demonstrated that they had been able to work together successfully.
The differences of class interests and ideology began to bedevil the coalition, however, and on the eve of the 1968 general elections, the two political parties had separated because of unresolved differences.
The PNC stated that the coalition had collapsed because:-
1. The United Force objected to a move to Republican status because they associated republicanism with lawlessness and,
2. The PNC had a popular base among the urban workers and the peasantry, while the UF was mainly supported by businessmen and the people from the hinterland.
On the other hand, the UF claimed that it had withdrawn from the coalition because their contributions were often ignored or downplayed.
The 1968 general elections were deemed to be very historic in Guyana's political development. While the UF and the PPP did not intend to form an alliance, they filed writs, protesting the electoral reforms on the eve of the elections. They objected to the government's decision to introduce overseas voting, and the presentation of candidates in alphabetical order.
It was interesting to note that during the 1968 general elections, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan, the leaders of the major political parties stated their position on the issue of the political alliance. Forbes Burnham, contested the election with the slogan `Win every vote for the PNC'. In his opinion, the contest was mainly between the PPP and the PNC. He also emphatically stated:-
"For the next election, it is either going to be Burnham or Jagan. So help me God, I shall never again lead the People's National Congress into a coalition Government."
On the other hand, Jagan argued that while he was not opposed to alliances or coalitions, he would only form an alliance if the PPP won the majority of the votes. The PNC won the 1968 elections.
During the run up to the 1973 general elections, a PNC/PPP coalition or alliance had found acceptance in some sections of the Guyanese society. The main reason which the supporters for the coalition government advanced was that it would prevent lawlessness, particularly if the government was protected by the Guianese and British Security forces. For example, during 1973, when there was a five-month strike in the country, one witnessed the seeds of destruction. There was an upsurge of violence linked to inter-racial hatred, segregation, and migration.
The 1970s also witnessed the emergence of a political alliance which compelled the attention of the ruling, PNC government, as well as the general Guianese public. This political alliance was the Working People's Alliance (WPA). The Working People's Alliance was formally constituted in November 1974. This grand alliance comprised the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), the Indian Political Revolutionary Associates, (IPRA), the Working Peoples Vanguard Party, (the WPVP), RATOON, and individuals like Walter Rodney and Rupert Roopnarine.
The WPA contended that class was responsible for the socio-economic problems of Guyanese and not the race factor. It was their objective to create a nationalist government. They attracted large crowds at their public meetings. But there was no doubt that even within this alliance, the personality cult was an important factor.
One of the most influential leaders of the WPA was the historian Walter Rodney. It was evident that if any significant dialogue was done between the two major parties and the WPA, that they would not be able to ignore Walter Rodney. It was during this period that the PPP had offered a 17-point proposal for a National Patriotic Front (NPF), which the WPA subsequently did not accept. However, they were more willing to embrace the pressure group, Compass's call for a `Government of National Reconstruction.' Since his death in June 1980, the WPA had not appeared to threaten the stability of the major parties, but after entering Parliament it played an important role in determining the balance of power. In fact, the WPA had been in the front line in the call for the formation of a nationalist government.
During the 1980s, there were other pressure groups which once again threatened the existence of the two major parties. They mobilised in the traditional PNC and PPP strong-holds. At the same time, the two parties restarted talks in 1984. During 1985, the PNC formally invited the PPP to dialogue on national unity. When Burnham died in August 1985, the talks were suspended between the PPP and the PNC. They did not combine for the 1985 General Elections, but the PNC continued to make overtures to the PPP.
One of the pressure groups which emerged in the 1980s was the Guyana Action for Reform and Democracy (GUARD). By 1990, this group had become very formidable. While it did not contest the 1992 elections, some of its members subsequently joined with the PPP and individual independents who called themselves the Civic group to contest the 1992 elections.
The PPP/Civic won the 1992 elections, but did not have an overall majority in the House of Assembly. Hence President Jagan announced that he would make overtures to the smaller parties like the Working People's Alliance and the United Force. However, the WPA leader Clive Thomas indicated that he would prefer a national government. But it was recognised that it was not easy to achieve this objective.
The view was expressed that the PPP had not been in power for a long time, and that some Indians had thought that they had not actively participated in Guyana's political development. It had also been stated that President Jagan did not have to participate in coalition politics, because he had won a majority.
It was also recognised that the PNC would not be willing to support the idea of a national government, especially if they sensed the possibility of resuming power.
Those politicians who called for a national government, pointed out that first, it would provide a period of confidence building and reconciliation, and second, prevent any use of economic sabotage. A national government was not established during the 1992/1997 period, and as the 1997 elections approached, some political analysts began to promote the idea of coalitions of a small party with one of the major parties. It was thought that this would circumvent the problem of racial voting. In July 1996, the Guyana Labour Party (GLP) which was held by Dr Nanda Kishore Gopaul had formed an alliance with Mr Asgar Ally of the United Democratic Party.
In 1997, two of the parties which contested the December 15 election comprised members of the defunct parties. The Guyana Democratic Party (GDP) which had contested the elections for the first time, comprised members of the defunct Guyanese Action for Reform and Democracy (GUARD) and the Guyana Labour Party (GLP). Ally was the Presidential candidate of the GDP, but the alliance fell apart.
There was also the Alliance For Guyana party which was formed in 1996 and comprised the WPA, GLP and a citizens group. The Presidential candidate, of the AFG was Dr Rupert Roopnarine, the leader of the WPA, and Dr Nanda Kishore Gopaul, the leader of the Guyana Labour Party was appointed the Prime Ministerial Candidate.
One of their candidates, stated that the 1997 election was not contested between the PPP and PNC, but between the features and issues associated with old politics, and a new generation of political leaders and activists. He recommended that any party that polled less than 50 per cent should do one of three things, (1) call new elections (2) govern as a minority government or (3) establish a national or a coalition government. In his opinion, the best option was a national government which would end one-party government, and change the face of politics.
Conversely, the PPP did not emphasise alliances nor coalition governments. Instead, they claimed that in voting for the party, they would not only be continuing the work of Cheddi Jagan, but would also have helped to consolidated their own victory. In addition, one African-Guyanese candidate of the party, in acknowledging that the spectre of race still influenced voting patterns in Guyana, encouraged more of his ethnic group to vote for the party in order to put an end to the old form of politics.
While the other major political party, the People's National Congress also rejected racial politics and stated that it would work towards promoting the politics of inclusion, there was no allusion to the formation of a political alliance. It was the press which proposed the idea of an alliance between the PNC and one of the splinter parties, dependent on the outcome of the election. Instead, the PNC emphasised the importance of Guyanese working towards overcoming poverty and oppression.
Once again, one observed that shortly after the elections held on December 5, 1997, one heard more about the majority parties in those alliances which had been formed to contest the general elections while the smaller partners, remained supportive. Thus, the WPA, the majority partner in the AFG, for instance, entered parliament and the GLP and the citizens group went their separate ways.
In September, 1998, the Citizens Group and Dr Nanda Kishore leader of the Guyana Labour Party declared that although the individual parties had returned to their respective groups, they had not separated because of any differences. In fact, Dr Gopaul insisted that they would come together whenever necessary to issue joint statements because the Alliance for Guyana was still alive.
In conclusion, it has been observed from the sources which were examined, that there were certain preconditions which caused political parties and pressure groups to form alliances, or to demand nationalist government.
First, it was found that whenever the political parties were out of power, they called for the formation of a nationalist government, or they formed alliances.
Second, whenever it appeared that the political party in government seemed to be losing control of its power, it initiated discussions with other parties. Thus, their main objective was to consolidate power.
However, it was discovered that the major party in the partnership shaped the policies of the alliances. This invariably led to a strained relationship, and the break up of the alliances.