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Brief Political History and Dynamics of Guyana

The original Guiana was inhabited by semi-nomadic Amerindian tribes which lived by hunting and fishing.  It was divided by European powers into Spanish Guiana (Venezuela), Portuguese (Brazil), French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Suriname) and British Guiana (Guyana).  Colonial competition for territory began with the Spanish sighting in 1499.  Probably temporary Spanish or Portuguese settlements were followed by Dutch settlement, first unsuccessfully at Pomeroon, and then (in 1627) under the protection of the Dutch West India Company on the Berbice River.  Despite yielding from time to time to British, French and Portuguese invasions, the Dutch kept control until 1814, when the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were ceded to Britain.  The Europeans imported African slaves to develop their plantations, first of tobacco and later sugar, and to labour on constructing the coastal drainage system and the elegant city of Georgetown.  Some slaves escaped to the forest; these so-called ‘bush-blacks’ eked out a living by panning for gold, hunting and subsistence agriculture.

The British administration merged the three colonies into British Guiana in 1831, but retained the Dutch administrative, legislative and legal system whereby the country was directed by a governor, advised by councils of plantation owners.  After the abolition of slavery, Indian and smaller numbers of Portuguese, Chinese and Javanese indentured labourers were brought in to work the estates. 

In 1928 a legislative council, with members appointed by the British government, was established, but members were elected after extension of the franchise in 1943 and 1945.  The country was by this period among the most advanced of the British colonial territories in the region, and became the headquarters of several regional educational and political institutions.  CARICOM still has its headquarters in Georgetown.

In 1953, a constitution with a bicameral legislative and ministerial system, based on elections under universal adult suffrage, was introduced.  There was a general election, won by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr.  Cheddi Jagan.  The PPP had a large East Indian following, whereas the People’s National Congress (PNC, a breakaway party formed in 1957, had its roots among Guyanese of African origin.  Shortly after the 1953 elections, the UK suspended the Constitution, decided to ‘mark time’ in the advance towards self-government and administered the country with a government composed largely of nominated members.

When, in 1957, the UK did introduce elected members, the legislature voted for more representative government.  The UK called a Constitutional Conference which was held in 1960 and provided for a new Constitution with full internal self-government.  In the elections held in August 1961 under this Constitution, the PPP again gained the majority.  The UNK held further Constitutional Conferences in 1962 and 1963, to settle terms for independence, but ethnic divisions prevented the leaders of Guyana’s three political parties from being able to reach consensus among themselves on the terms of a Constitution; they then asked the UK to settle the matter. 

The UK selected a form of proportional representation which was aimed at preventing domination by any single ethnic group.  (It was also argued that, at this period the ‘Cuba crisis’ with near-war between the US and USSR, the UK was under pressure to avoid allowing a socialist government to come to power in Guyana).  Despite renewed disturbances, elections were held under the PR system, and brought to power a coalition of the People’s National Congress led by Forbes Burnham and The United Force (TUF). 

The new government finalized independence arrangements at a further Constitutional Conference, which was boycotted by the PPP.  Guyana became independent and joined the Commonwealth in May 1966, and became a republic four years later.

POST-INDEPENDENCE PERIOD

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, led by Forbes Burnham, allied with The United Force (TUF) in 1964 and formed the first post-independence government.  In the 1970s, the PNC followed a strong socialist line and 80% of the economy was nationalised.  These were years of considerable unrest and increasing economic difficulty, as debt increased and world prices for the major exports fell.  The PPP, led by Dr.  Cheddi Jagan, remained in opposition.
 
The PNC remained in power until 1992 with numerous allegations of electoral malpractice and manipulation being made each of the elections which followed that party’s accession to office.  Executive Presidency was introduced in 1980.  In 1985 Forbes died and was replaced by Desmond Hoyte. 

Although both parties can claim a “cross-over” of a 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. 

For the 1992 elections the PPP, in an attempt to broaden its appeal to non-Indo Guyanese electors and to demonstrate a break with its own political past, allied itself with a group of people from the business community and civil society under title People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic).  From time to time, a number of small parties have risen to challenge one or the other of the larger parties.  However, few have in the past succeeded in winning substantial support.  Consequently, even by 1997, almost 96% of the electorate voted for either the PPP/C or the PNC. 

As a consequence of intense criticism which followed the 1985 general elections, the PNC Government led by President Desmond Hoyte instituted reform of the electoral process and relinquished control of the electoral machinery.

1992, the PPP/Civic won the General Elections but although international observers and others proclaimed the elections as “free and fair”, a minority of the electorate remained doubtful and Georgetown witnessed a number of demonstrations.

The 1997 General Elections, which the PPP/Civic again won, also ended in allegations or irregularities and electoral malpractice, which sparked off numerous demonstrations which degenerated into violence and civil disturbances.  In the wake of the violence on the streets of Georgetown CARICOM dispatch a Goodwill Mission to Guyana in January 1998.  on 17 January 1998 the CARICOM Mission brokered an agreement between the PPP/C and the PNC through the signing of the Herdmanston Accord by President Janet Jagan and Leader of the ONC, Desmond Hoyte, which brought peace to the country.  By this accord, the parties committed themselves to political dialogue, an external audit of the election results and constitutional reform.  The purpose of the accord was to reduce conflict and bring about a level of normality.  As a consequence the PPP/C government agreed to prematurely end its term in office on January 17, 2001.

The 2001 elections were again won by the PPP/C and Bharrat Jagdeo became one of the youngest Presidents in the world.  In 2002, following the death of Desmond Hoyte ad his succession by Robert Corbin, dialogue broke down between the main parties and violence escalated sharply.  President Jagdeo requested Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon to appoint a Special Envoy to Guyana to assist in restarting the dialogue.  Sir Paul Reeves, former Governor-General and Archbishop of New Zealand, was appointed as Special Envoy and, at the time of writing, had visited Guyana 12 times.  The initial objective of his engagement had been to promote dialogue between the main political parties with a view to developing more inclusiveness in the political life of the country.

The latest elections were held on 28 August 2006. President Jagdeo was once again re-elected with an increased majority, although the voter turnout was much lower at 68%. The PPP obtained 36 seats, and the PNC22. A new political party, the Alliance for Change (AFC), led by 2 disaffected politicians (one Indo-Guyanese and one Afro-Guyanese) from the PPP and PNC, won 5 seats, and became the strongest third party in Guyana since 1964. Two other smaller parties won a seat each. The elections attracted a good deal of international attention with election observers being sent from several international agencies including the UK. Unlike the 2001 elections, when there was serious post-election violence, the 2006 elections passed off peacefully. In remarks prior to, and following, the election President Jagdeo promised to bring about Constitutional change and to foster an enhanced framework of political cooperation between parliamentary parties. The next elections must be held by 28 December 2011.

Due to constitutional term limits, President Jagdeo is ineligible to run for reelection again when his term concludes in 2011.

Key
A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance for Change (APNU/AFC); People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C); Healing the Nation Theocracy Party (HTNTP); Independent Party (IP); National Independent Party (NIP); Organisation for the Victory of the People Party (OVPP); The United Force (TUF); United Republican Party (URP); Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM)
Sources
Commonwealth Secretariat.  (2007). Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group on Guyana General and Regional Elections 28 August 2006.
http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/1984.htm
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