by Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Chronicle
April 27, 2003

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The 27th day of April this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first electoral victory of the People's Progressive Party (PPP). It was on that day in 1953 that the PPP, just only three years old, scored a massive victory at the polls, winning 18 of the 24 seats in the new legislature. That victory set the stage for the beginning of a new phase in the political history of Guyana.

Much has already been written about that period in this nation's history. Clearly, the effective organisation of the party in all parts of the country, its bold imaginative programme aimed at alleviating the sufferings of the downtrodden masses, its total multi-racial grassroots support, and the introduction of adult suffrage, (for which the party had consistently fought), were key factors that ensured this victory.

The Election Campaign
During 1952, the PPP continued a country-wide campaign to educate the expanded electorate of its political programme aimed at improving conditions in the country. Simultaneously, the leader of the Party continued his efforts in the Legislative Council to fight for the interests of the workers and farmers in Guyana and of oppressed people in other countries.

The Legislative Council was due to be dissolved on November 29, 1952, but its life was extended to April 2, 1953 by the colonial authorities. The extension was to enable the authorities to put into effect the arrangements of the new Waddington constitution to enable the holding of the new general election under universal adult suffrage.

By the beginning of 1953, political parties were making themselves ready for the election. Only the PPP and the National Democratic Party (NDP), recently formed, were organised on a national basis. The NDP included personalities such as Rudy Kendall, and leaders of the League of Coloured People (LCP), John Carter and J.A. Nicholson. It was supported by the capitalist class, and was actively backed by the news media, the LCP, the Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA) and some other trade unions generally regarded as “company unions”. It also received backing from middle class Africans, but despite its overt appeal to African racism, it also had supporters among persons from other ethnic groups. Among its members were Lionel Luckhoo and Balram Singh Rai. Even though he was a supporter of Dr. Jagan in 1947, Rai refused to join the PPP after he qualifying in England a lawyer, but instead joined the NDP and stood as one of its candidates.

Another party which emerged was the United Workers and Farmers Party (UWFP), formed by Daniel Debedin. It was expected that Debedin would have joined the PPP, but he decided against this because he felt that the Party would not win the election. His party was really a loose group of individuals, and it had no support from workers and farmers. It was supported by the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA), and it claimed to represent the interests of middle class Indians.

Sugar planter interests in Berbice helped to put together the People’s National Party (PNP) with the aim of opposing the PPP in that county. Another small grouping which arose called itself the United Guiana Party (UGP). Both of these were splinter groups of individuals with varying interests who broke away from the NDP.

Political Programmes
The parties opposing the PPP had no concrete programme to present to the electorate except expressing strong opposition to communism which they claimed to be its platform. They accused the PPP of receiving money from the Soviet Union, and the media, including the weekly newspaper of the MPCA, carried sustained vicious attacks on the PPP and its leaders.

As the election campaign swung into high gear, the Anglican and Catholic Churches came out openly in opposing the PPP. One of their main grouses was that the Party had stated that it intended to end “dual control” of schools. In 1953, there were 297 schools, of which 19 were Government schools, 9 Government aided, and the remaining 269 under control of Christian denominations, even though almost all were built with Government funds. The Anglican and Catholic Churches, the largest and most influential denominations, felt that if the schools were removed from their management, their influence on the education system would be severely restricted. They were not concerned that nearly half of the population of the country belonged to non-Christian religions.

Interestingly, some sections of the Hindu and Muslim communities also opposed the PPP on the misguided belief that the Party was anti-religion, and they formed a queer alliance with the Anglican and Catholic Churches. These groups included some of the leaders of the Sad’r Islamic Anjuman, the Muslim League, the Maha Sabha and the Pandits’ Council.

Racists in the NDP and the LCP attacked the PPP claiming that Indians dominated it and that Burnham and other African leaders were being used to win African votes. On the other hand, racists in the UFWP and the British Guiana East Indian Association claimed that Dr. Jagan, by having Africans in the PPP, was selling out the interests of the Indians. They said that the PPP, by supporting the proposed West Indian Federation, would open Guyana to a flood of Africans from the West Indian territories. Calling on Indians not to support the PPP, Daniel Debedin of the UFWP urged then to “vote for your own”, thus giving origin to the racist slogan of “Apan Jhaat”.

The PPP, with widespread support from workers and farmers of all races, and also from the TUC, presented its election manifesto which outlined its program. In education, the party called for state-controlled, secular education, and the provision of more secondary and nursery schools. In relation to agriculture, the PPP proposed measures to include land reform, land settlement, security of tenure for farmers and provision for agricultural loans. The implementation of drainage and irrigation schemes was also planned. For housing, the party intended to develop low-rental housing schemes, while for economic growth, it saw the necessity of establishing new manufacturing industries. The first steps towards free health care for the people were also included in the programme. An additional intent of the PPP was to amend all existing laws and regulations which restricted the civil liberties of the people. It also announced that it would democratise all public institutions and would continue to wage the struggle for self-government and independence.

Despite its optimism, the PPP in early 1953 was not sure that it would win a clear majority of the seats. It felt, however, that it would win enough to at least form a strong opposition force in the legislature to enable it to champion the cause of the people. But by mid-April the Party, through its effective house to house campaign, was confident that it would win 17 seats.

Burnham’s Quest for Leadership of PPP
There was some cause for concern in March 1953 when signs of division were demonstrated in the PPP ranks. At the third congress of the Party, Forbes Burnham and some of his supporters moved a motion calling for the leader of the Party to be elected by the General Council and not by the delegates to the congress. Burnham felt that his supporters would form the majority in the General Council and they would eventually elect him as leader of the Party. He was sure this would happen because it had been decided at the second congress in 1952 that the third congress would be one of members instead of delegates. And since it was being held in Georgetown where he had a strong following among the membership of the Party, he was confident that his supporters would elected a General Council comprising of persons who supported him.

But his plan fell apart when, during the discussion on the motion, Sydney King questioned the reason for the motion saying that it was a no-confidence motion against Dr. Jagan. The members, most of whom were from Georgetown, agreed with King, and when the motion was put to the vote, an overwhelming majority voted against it. The congress also elected members to the General Council who opposed Burnham’s plan.

Nomination day was on April 16, and the PPP named candidates for 22 of the 24 constituencies. It did not contest in two interior areas due to a shortage of funds. The NDP contested in 15 constituencies, the PNP in 8 and the UGP in 4. The UFWP failed to contest as a party, and its leader presented himself as one of the 79 other independent candidates.

The General Election
The general election, held under the “first past the post” system, took place on 27 April 1953. The total number of voters registers in a house to house enumeration was 208,939. Almost 150,000 were newly qualified because of the extended franchise, resulting from the granting of universal adult suffrage. Of this number, an estimated 40,000 were illiterate, and special arrangements had to be made to enable them to vote. These included the introduction of symbols for political parties and independent candidates, and separate ballot boxes for each candidate. Each ballot box was marked with the name and photograph and symbol of the candidate. The symbols were chosen long before nomination day, and all voters knew whom they represented. The PPP, as a political party, adopted the cup as its symbol and all its candidates used it during their campaign to educate voters, particularly the illiterate, on how to mark their ballots.

On election day, the ballot boxes were placed behind a screen and the voter, after marking his ballot in secret, folded it and placed it in the box of his chosen candidate. By the time the polls closed at 6.00 p.m., 156,226 persons or 75 per cent had voted; the final tally showed that the valid votes were 152,231 or 73 per cent of the electorate.

There was great excitement over the election, and most persons voted very early. The results were declared by the following morning and they showed that the PPP won 18 seats while obtaining 51 per cent of the overall votes. The NDP won two seats, while independent candidates won four. Among the electoral casualties of the NDP was Lionel Luckhoo, the President of the MPCA, who lost badly to a PPP candidate in a district with a large sugar worker population.

Among the successful PPP candidates were three women - Janet Jagan, Jane Philips-Gay and Jesse Burnham. They became the first women were elected to the Guyanese legislature.

The spectacular victory of the PPP caused much concern among the colonial authorities since they had not expected an outright victory by the PPP. They anticipated that no party would win a clear majority and that the new Government would be made up of a grouping of members of political parties and independents, and thus, could be easily manipulated. It was apparent that the colonial authorities based their analysis on the opinions expressed by the media which claimed that the PPP would be soundly defeated.

To the credit of the people, the election campaign and the election were totally free of any form of violence or disorder. Commenting on the positive manner in which the recent elections were conducted, Governor Sir Alfred Savage in May 1953 noted that “a most heartening feature . . . was the absence of racialism.”

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, was very critical of the Colonial Office which had predicted in a briefing to him that the PPP could not win a majority. The United States Government was also concerned over the new situation and felt that the PPP victory presented a strong threat to British colonialism.

In a statement on the results, the PPP in the May 1953 issue of Thunder declared: “The victory of our democratic movement was a great shock and surprise to the ruling class, who, consequent upon their thirst for maximum profit, have isolated themselves from the people.”

“Leader or Nothing”
The Party immediately set about during the week after the election to select its six Ministers and to submit their names to the Governor, Sir Alfred Savage. However new internal problems arose when Burnham, the chairman of the Party, refused at a joint meeting of the General Council and the Parliamentary group to agree to the selection of Ministers unless he was named as the leader of the Party. His demand was to be “leader or nothing”! Even though the members of the General Council explained to him that the issue of the leader was settled in March at the third Party congress (when he made his first attempt to become the leader), he refused to budge.

For almost the entire week the Party was plunged into a crisis. The PPP supporters who were very excited over the electoral victory could not understand what was happening.

On Thursday May 7, Burnham had one of his close supporters call a mass meeting of PPP supporters in Georgetown. His plan was to get the crowd to demand that Dr. Jagan should surrender the leadership of the Party to him. But his scheme backfired when Rudy Luck, a member the General Council, attended the meeting and told the audience the real reason for the crisis brought about by Burnham’s action. The meeting broke up in disorder, and Burnham, realising that he had no support, was forced to drop his demand, and he eventually agreed to discuss the selection of the Ministers.

But he did not give in without making other demands. The original six names for ministerial appointments were Forbes Burnham, Ashton Chase, Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Sydney King and Joseph Lachmansingh. Burnham insisted that Jai Narine Singh, who joined the party only in 1953, and Dr. Hanoman-Singh, two of his close supporters, must be named as Ministers. He also wanted a change in the proposed nominees for the State Council, George Robertson and Herbert Thomas. In the end a compromise was reached. Jai Narine Singh was included on the ministerial list in place of Janet Jagan who was nominated as Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly. For the State Council, Herbert Thomas was replaced by Ulric Fingal, one of Burnham’s nominees.

With these matters finally settled, the PPP was ready to take up its seats in the House of Assembly which was inaugurated on 18 May 1953.

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