Guyana and the Challenges of Managing a Coalition

The election of the APNU+AFC coalition in 2015 was a very welcomed development for many in Guyana. During the time that the PPP had been in power, it engaged in behavior which, as Guyanese political activist Eusi Kwayana stated, made the PPP “objectionable to man and God.” Under the PPP, Guyana was ranked as the most corrupt country in the English speaking Caribbean. Guyana also remained the poorest nation in the English speaking Caribbean as well. The opposition had also raised concerns regarding the fact that since the PPP came into power, there were more than 400 unsolved murders in Guyana.

The PPP’s tenure was also marked by the racial division which the party often attempted to spread in Guyana. An example of this was one particular occasion in which The Chronicle published an editorial which depicted young African men in Guyana as being groomed to be violent towards Indian people. In response to this editorial, several activists publicly set copies of The Chronicle on fire in protest. The AFC called for President Donald Ramotar to speak out against the editorial.

The coalition between the APNU and the AFC was seen as an opportunity to unite Guyana following the racially divisive adminstration of the PPP and to move Guyana forward after years of corruption and unchecked criminal activity, but this would be no easy task. Not only was the APNU+AFC facing the task of holding together this coalition as it was attempting to manage the country, but the APNU+AFC retained a single seat majority in the National Assembly. The PPP also provided unrelenting opposition. There was little room for error given not only the small margin, but the fact that APNU+AFC had to hold together a coalition of parties which did not share the same ideology. The lack of a shared ideological vision has often been the downfall of political coalitions, and in the end Guyana was no different.

After being in office for only a few months, the government decided to increase the salary of government ministers. The response to the backlash from this salary increase was an early indicator of the lack of cohesiveness from the government. Joseph Harmon, the Minister of State, declared that he would offer no apology for the pay increase. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, on the other hand, took the blame for the government’s poor handling of the increase, while Raphael Trotman asked the Guyanese people to trust the new government. Years later, President David Granger himself claimed that he had no regrets over the salary increase. The PNC and the AFC seemed to express different tones regarding the salary increase, which was an indicator that they were not quite on the same page regarding the salary increase.

The ideological differences within the coalition were apparent when one examines the WPA’s relationship with the coalition. Both the members and supporters of the WPA complained about feeling sidelined within the government. President Granger denied this, however. Not long after the APNU+AFC was sworn in, Tacuma Ogunseye of the WPA complained that no meeting was held before decisions were made with respect to post elections responsibilities and Ministerial appointments. Ogunseye stated, “I find it hard to accept that the common courtesies and respect for comrades’ civil political relations dictate, in this case were not followed.”

One of the issues which members of the WPA experienced within the coalition was their willingness to criticize the missteps which the government made. For example, it was revealed that the government was paying $500,000 a month in rent for two ministers. David Hinds, an executive member of the WPA, denounced this as being immoral, considering the financial struggles of the rest of the population. Hinds pointed out that it was a struggle to get salary increases for public servants and teachers, while the government had no problem spending large sums of money to house government ministers. Hinds also argued that a proposed $300,000 limit for house rent was still too high. The WPA’s position was that the ministers should pay their own rent or be housed in government properties. Just as he defended the salary increase, Harmon also defended the $500,000 house rent by stating that this was part of the benefit which was given to ministers.

David Hinds, who frequently offered criticisms of the government (which included criticizing the previously mentioned salary increase), was eventually terminated from the state owned news outlet, the Chronicle. Hinds complained: “I feel that the Chronicle has slipped right back to where it was during the Jagdeo years — it has again become an unvarnished mouthpiece of the government.” Lincoln Lewis, who was also vocal in his criticisms of the government, was terminated as well. David Hinds explained in an interview with Christopher Ram that he became persona non grata in certain government circles for his criticisms of the government.

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This demonstrated that the APNU+AFC government was unwilling to listen to constructive criticisms from those within the APNU+AFC. Silencing criticisms can be a very dangerous thing for any political party, but especially for a coalition in which alienating other parties could be a politically costly move. When Forbes Burnham served as the prime minister and then president of Guyana, he declared the paramountcy of the party over the state. He also governed in a very autocratic manner. The PPP operated in a similarly autocratic manner. One of the mistakes which the APNU+AFC made is that the PNC attempted to operate in the same autocratic manner, but doing so meant creating distrust and division within the coalition.

Further tensions were caused when the Public Health Minister and People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) Chairperson Volda Lawrence declared that she only has PNC friends and that the only people she can give work to are PNC. Such a statement demonstrated not only a complete lack of regard for the other parties within the APNU coalition, but it also undermined the very namesake of the coalition, which was meant to be a partnership to create national unity.

The APNU+AFC would pay for its inability to maintain the cohesiveness of the coalition when they faced with a vote of no confidence. Charrandas Persaud, a member of the AFC party, decided to join the opposition in voting against the government. As mentioned before, the APNU+AFC maintained a single seat majority in parliament, so losing a no confidence motion was as simple as a single member of parliament becoming so dissatisfied with the government that he was willing to vote in favor of the opposition, and this is precisely what Charrandas did.

In an interview which he conducted after his vote, Charrandas explained that his dissatisfaction with how the AFC was being treated in the coalition caused him to vote against the government. He specifically took issue with Volda Lawrence’s remarks and the treatment of sugar workers. Whereas David Hinds argued that the government had only itself to blame for losing the no confidence vote, others sought to portray Charrandas as a traitor who not only betrayed the coalition and there were rumors that he had been paid off by the PPP. The AFC not only expressed shock at Charrandas’ betrayal, but expelled him from the party as well. The outcome was shocking, but the signs that the coalition was breaking down were very apparent.

Rather than concede defeat, the APNU+AFC decided to take the no confidence vote to court. It should have been apparent to those involved that the government was defeated by a majority of the votes in parliament, but the leadership of the APNU+AFC demonstrated an unwillingness to concede power. We saw this again with the election which was held this year. It took five months for Granger to finally concede defeat in the election. We once again saw dissension in the ranks of the coalition as some within the coalition had been calling on the government to concede.

The failure of Guyana’s coalition brings to mind the coalition in Trinidad which faced similar challenges. In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago elected the People’s Partnership coalition, which lasted one term as well. The PP coalition ran into several problems of its own and lasted only one term in office. The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ)left the coalition because the changes which were promised had not been carried out. David Abdulah, the leader of the MSJ, complained that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s government was not about changing the system of governance, which was the original intent, but rather changing faces because it is “we time now”. The National Joint Action Committee was a member of the PP coalition as well. Some criticized joining the government as an act of betrayal on the part of NJAC. Coalitions are not easy to hold together, especially in multi-racial nations with a history of racial tensions within the politics. I don’t think the leaders of the coalition in Guyana were truly prepared to handle this and their unwillingness to listen to constructive criticism certainly made matters worse. They also did not learn from the mistakes made by the coalition in Trinidad.

The PPP is in power once again and it remains to be seen if the five years that the PPP spent in opposition has caused the party to learn from its prior failings. I personally am skeptical simply because the PPP has yet to acknowledge or reconcile for the many misdeeds which the PPP engaged while in power last time. For example, an individual such as Kwame McCoy who was recorded trying to solicit sex from a school boy should have no place in the PPP, but he was brought back to be a minister in the new administration. There is also the fact that President Irfaan Ali is facing 19 fraud charges. One thing that I have to credit the APNU+AFC for is the significant improvements that Guyana made in addressing the issue of corruption during the time that they were in office and one can only hope that Guyana does not regress with the PPP in power again.

The dominant political parties in Guyana are stubborn and often insist on repeating the mistakes of the past. It does not appear that the PPP has truly reformed itself and it also remains to be seen whether or not the APNU+AFC can regroup and learn from its mistakes before the next election.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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