A number of Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) countries face leadership uncertainties in the coming months. However, in none of them are the uncertainties more pronounced than in Guyana, a sprawling 83,000 sq miles territory on the tip of the South American coast.
The current President, 46-year old Bharat Jagdeo, will finish his two-terms in office next year. Barred by the Constitution from serving for more than two terms, Jagdeo has repeatedly rejected rumours that he intends to change the Constitution to allow for a third term.
Nonetheless the rumours persist. Both well-placed persons and the ordinary man-in-the street claim that Jagdeo has done a deal with the current leader of the opposition in Parliament, Robert Corbin of the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) to amend the Constitution so as to permit a third term. In return, it is claimed Jagdeo will form a government consisting of his own party, the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) and the PNC in which Corbin would be the Prime Minister.
It is a most unlikely scenario and one which would place both Jagdeo and Corbin at serious odds with their own parties neither of which would tolerate a marriage in which the bride and bridegroom hold shotguns at the heads of the rival families.
Robert Corbin, Leader of the People's National Congress
Senior officials of the PPP are quick to point out that it was the PPP that amended the Constitution to institute the two-term limit on holders of the Presidency. They argue that the PPP could not credibly initiate or back “amending its own constitutional amendment”.
To be fair to both men, they have both denied any such arrangement and Jagdeo has publicly stated that he is leaving the Presidency at the end of his term.
There is no shortage of aspirants for the job – it is a glittering prize that has been held by five persons since Guyana became independent from Britain 44 years ago. Although Guyana’s politics has been dominated by the PPP and PNC with third parties arising only to be snuffed out after a relatively brief period, next year’s Presidential and general elections should see the Alliance for Change (AFC) still in the race after a showing in the last elections in which they were themselves disappointed.
Historically, since the break-up of the PPP and the creation of the PNC and its rival, Guyana’s electoral politics has been rooted in playing to the country’s racial divisions. The PPP has relied on a significant core support in the community of East Indian descendants, and the PNC has depended on the majority in the community of African descent. For its part, the AFC has been trying to break the mould by appealing to all races and especially to the younger generation who carry much less of the baggage of racial conflicts that has been characteristic of the country’s politics.
But, neither the PPP nor the PNC can now depend on a racial vote to give it an overall majority in a general election.
The size of the East Indian community has been dwindling and now stands at around 35 per cent of the population. The PPP, therefore, needs to maintain its core support while attracting at least 16 per cent of the remaining population to win an outright majority. This task is daunting unless it can field a Presidential candidate and a slate of candidates for Parliament that can reach beyond their core supporters to attract voters from other races.
The same problem besets the PNC. The community of African descendants is now approximately 30 per cent of the population making it necessary for the PNC to gain support from at least 21 per cent of the remaining population to form a government on its own.
The AFC secured just over 8 per cent of the popular vote in the 2006 general elections. It had hoped to win enough support to hold the balance of power and insert itself into a coalition government. That option did not materialise since the PNC won only 34 per cent of the popular vote and the PPP secured a comfortable overall majority of 54 per cent.
Within Jagdeo’s PPP, there is said to be four contenders for the Presidency, two of whom –Donald Ramotar, the Party’s General Secretary, and Ralph Ramkarran a long standing member of the Party’s Executive and current Speaker of the National Assembly - are front runners. It is expected that before the end of this year, the PPP will decide on its candidate for the country’s Presidency.
The situation in the PNC is more complex. Its leader, Robert Corbin, commands the majority the party’s grass roots support, but its traditional middle class supporters are disenchanted with his leadership. There is a growing consensus among the middle-class supporters of the PNC to coalesce behind the Winston Murray, the Party’s former Chairman and an East Indian as the Presidential candidate. Corbin appears to have agreed that the PNC can choose a Presidential candidate other than him, but he has insisted on remaining as Party leader – a situation pregnant with decision-making issues, and one that is unlikely to make the PNC an attractive prospect for the electorate.
At the time of writing the AFC is about to hold a Convention at which its leadership may rotate from its present leader Raphael Trotman to its current Chairman Khemraj Ramjattan. This follows an agreement at the party’s creation that the leadership would rotate. It is not altogether clear, however, that the leader of the AFC will necessarily be its Presidential candidate.
In any event, the AFC would have to perform considerably better at next year’s elections to hold the balance of power to which it aspires in order to force the formation of a coalition government, and it certainly will not get the prized Presidency which, under Guyana’s system, goes to the candidate of the party that secures the largest number of votes.
The fight for the glittering prize is now on in all three parties. The person who inherits it will head a country which has not yet been able to bridge its racial division in political terms, and where economic deprivation and hardship still exists. But, the new President will also inherit from Bharat Jagdeo’s stewardship a country whose economic situation and social services are better than they have been for three decades. Housing, medical facilities and education have all dramatically improved under Jagdeo, as has its infrastructural development particularly water distribution.
An economic basket case for 25 years since 1976, Guyana has moved from being a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HPIC) with little or no economic growth to steady growth today. In 2009, Guyana recorded 3.3 per cent growth while the majority of its CARICOM neighbours showed negative growth; public debt fell from 93.1 percent of GDP as of end-2006 to 56.8 percent of GDP in 2009.
The next President’s task will be to build on this legacy and to address with urgency the social and economic inequities that can easily reverse the progress that has been painfully made.