Guyana - Political Parties
One of the primary characteristics of Guyanese democracy is political competition based on ethnicity. The first modern political party in Guyana was the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established on 1 January 1950 with Forbes Burnham, a British-educated Afro-Guyanese, as Chairman; Dr Cheddi Jagan, a US-educated Indo-Guyanese as second vice chairman; and his American-born wife, Janet Jagan, as Secretary General. In 1955 the PPP split and Burnham founded what eventually became the People's National Congress (PNC).
African-descended Guyanese are largely represented by a group of small parties united under an alliance called A Partnership for National Unity (APNU). A third political party, the Alliance for Change (AFC), formed in 2005 to bridge the differences between the country's two main ethnic groups.
Two major political parties, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and People's National Congress (PNC) have dominated political life in Guyana since the late fifties. The PNC in an alliance with The United Force (TUF) in 1964 formed the first post independence Government. The former remained in power until 1992 with numerous allegations of electoral malpractice and manipulation being made after each of the elections which followed that party's accession to office. Although both parties can claim a "cross-over" of small numbers of voters from all of the ethnic groups that make up Guyana's population, The PPP/C gathers most of its support from the Indo-Guyanese community while the PNC is largely supported by the Afro-Guyanese.
From 1992 to 2006, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was in power, following twenty-eight years of rule by the People’s National Congress (PNC). The 2015 general elections resulted in the first change of the ruling party in 23 years. International observers concluded the elections were free, fair, and credible.
Despite low levels of party identification, parties have strong supporters among those identifying with them. Political parties are key institutions in any democratic system; they perform essential functions for the stability and consolidation of liberal democracies. Among these crucial functions are aggregating interests, channelling citizens’ demands, and selecting candidates for public office. In this sense, it is important to have political systems in which citizens develop affective ties or attachments to political parties that help to build stable and institutionalized party systems.
Electoral participation is one of the most important and common forms of political participation in every democracy. Aside from being the mechanism to select public officials, it is a way to express citizen belief in the legitimacy of the political system. The Church and the Guyana Defence Force are the institutions that reach the highest levels of confidence while the Mayor’s Office, the Guyana Police Force and political parties are the most distrusted institutions.
Neither Cheddi Jagan nor Forbes Burnham created the racial order in Guyana. The process of colonization included the invitation of competing labor groups and as a consequence, Afro and Indo Guyanese people were integrated into the economy and society very differently. The seeds for conflict in the colony of exploitation were always there.
One of the reasons for the Jagan-Burnham unity of the PPP in the 1950s was to build a coalition of racial unity in the struggle for independence. The split in the party in 1955 due to ideological and personality differences pronounced the racial antagonisms of the society within the broader imperial strategy of racial division. The racial riots and attacks on communities made the situation ugly for Guyana and everyday people.
Unlike most of the leaders of the Caribbean Left, Jagan long described himself as a Marxist and his ideologies grew with time. Cheddi Jagan was the son of indentured plantation workers in Guyana. He later attended Queen’s College in Georgetown for an education that would push him to overseas training in the USA in the sciences and dentistry. After his return to Guyana, by 1946 he organised the Political Affairs Committee and was elected a member of the Legislative Council. In 1950 he founded the People’s Progressive Party. Trevor Munroe reminds us, “Cheddi Jagan had won a massive election victory in 1953, the first Marxist to really win a majority in democratic elections – (Allende was not the first in the hemisphere)…”
Early on in Jagan’s political career, he subscribed to and publicly spoke of a Marxist politics that was sometimes at odds with the reality of the Guyanese race-class situation. While Marxism proved to be philosophically valuable to Caribbean decolonization and nationalist struggles, a number of Caribbean leaders failed to politically and practically apply the theorizing to their contexts.
Jagan’s popular support owed much less to his Marxist pronouncements than his personal leadership on behalf of working and poor people, especially, sugar workers. Jagan’s naivety and also his deep loyalty to the principle of political freedom made him reluctant to disavow his sympathies with communism and communist organizers globally.
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