[December 27, 1997]
I have observed with keen interest the unfolding of Guyana's 1997 general elections. For someone whose sole experience with the electoral process has been characterised by `free and fair' democratic practices, this was certainly a novel experience. In addition, having studied Guyana's historical evolution in great depth, as well as having directly participated in the political `game' in Trinidad and Tobago (ex-parliamentarian), it was with a kind of anxious anticipation that I watched on, listening with rapt attention to the campaign trail and the intellectual analyses which followed.
At the end of the day, the campaign, the debates as well as the s-l-o-w-l-y unfolding results have inspired me to add my two pence of comments. All with the hope that it will lend in the process of Guyana's political growth. There is much to speak of, not least being the pace at which the results are being disseminated. This much be the first time in history that it is taking this long to declare the results of what on face value was such a smoothly and almost trouble free voting day in a democratically run elections. All one can assume or rather hope for is that at the end of the day the results justify the reasons.
This however is not the issue which troubles me, clearly in Guyana's 30 odd years of electioneering, this is only its second real attempt at free and fair elections.(editor's note: there were fair elections in l953, l957, l96l, l964 and l992) Let me say, though, hats off the elections commission, the protective services and most of all to the people of Guyana for conducting themselves in a mature and responsible way. It was such a relief to someone like me that all the precautions of the business sector were unwarranted. This is clear and unambiguous evidence of communal growth! The matters which do concern me are; firstly, the focus of the campaign and secondly, the voting pattern of the 56 per cent youth voters exercising their franchise, in most instances for the first time.
With respect to the campaign, many have commented on the use of technology, the `media blitz' is the term banded about. In a world where technology dominates almost every aspect of our lives, we should not be surprised at it infiltrating the political arena. It happens in the developed countries and if we look as close as Trinidad, we will see that in its last national election, this method was very successfully used. In effect, I was very impressed when I saw Guyana `leap frogging' into the modern century through the use of available technology to get the message through. It is however, the tone of the advertising and in fact, the message which came through that I find worrying. It was as if each political meeting or rally was a big `fete', a party for people to come and have a good time. Issues of governance and programmes for growth and development took second place.
The appeal was to the emotion not to people's sense of rationality. Even manifestos which are generally a core document distributed early in the campaign came almost at the end of the campaign. In effect, instead of voters discussing and debating the issues prior to voting, they were pre-occupied singing the most popular jingles. At the end of the day, any voices putting forward strategies for taking Guyana forward were lost in the echoes of "one good term deserves another," "one bad term deserves no other," "twenty-eight plus five cya wok," "Desmond Hoyte is the man with the plan", etc. I felt like it was carnival in Trinidad. As one of these jingles started, pandemonium broke loose, and everyone started to sing and dance! This I feel is indeed a sad state of affairs! Guyana seems to continually be infiltrated with the negatives of outside development! People were so bombarded by these that the jingle became the campaign issue!
The second area which concerns me is heavily related to the first, and when its implications are considered, the picture is almost frightening. Fifty-six per cent of the voting population were youths under the age of thirty-five, most voting for the first time. In general and particularly in today's dynamic world environment, this segment is very hard to win over by political rhetoric, largely because their demands are so high. They want to know; why they should vote for you? What are your programmes for creating employment? For providing basic services? For education? In a nutshell, for empowering them?! Most countries find that the youth have to be courted from an intellectual perspective. They have not lived through the struggles, they have not fought for free and fair elections, to them that is their right, not something to be struggled for! Guyana in my view has proven the exception to that rule. I speak not only from the story being told by the unfolding results, but from actual conversations I have had with many young people.
What I found was that the rationale for whom the youth voted for rested solely on the race factor. It was `them' and `we'. While I could have come to terms with this if the choices were only the PPP/C and the PNC (given their nostalgic campaign strategies), I found it difficult to understand why the smaller parties (a few, strong on programmes and manpower capabilities to implement) were not even given a consideration. When I asked the question "Why are you voting for party X?" The answers were, "they do plenty." "They deserve another chance." There was no answer which indicated even an understanding of the issues of political governance. There were no questioning, no seeking of answers about education, job creation, housing, crime, these were non issues.
In any country, Trinidad the youth is its future leaders, managers, builders and educators. Unless this sector is resourced to maximise its thinking, its analytical paradigms, the future of the country is at risk. It will be as Guyana is today a country responding to superficial party songs. To move forward, Guyana as a country has to wake up to some hard truths. Its evolving generation of leaders are ill equipped to meet the challenges of development. This is by and large due to the erosion of its education system. It is an economy which once boasted of the highest literacy rate in the region (1960s), but now lays claim to the highest rate of illiteracy particularly amongst its youth. In Guyana a grade 3 at CXC is accepted as a pass, nowhere else in the region is under a grade 2 a pass. The youth in Guyana dream of securing an American visa to emigrate, thoughts of becoming a professional and contributing to the development of Guyana are to them, other peoples business. Even for those minded in a more positive direction, quality higher and tertiary educational opportunities are few and far between.
Whichever party forms the next government and whoever chooses as a career path political representation of the people of Guyana needs to take a serious look at this issue. The frightening thing, though, is that it is this very state of affairs which makes it easy for some to seek the offices of political power, they may therefore see it in their perpetual favour to maintain this status quo. Such a state, however, will forever keep Guyana in a state of poverty and underdevelopment.
I listened to the intellectuals and the practitioners analysing the results as they unfolded on the local television forums. They all noted that the voting patterns of the youth voters were following the traditional patterns of their parents and grandparents, but there the discussions stopped. The discussions did not attempt to analyse the reasons or to explore the need for a changing situation as vital to the progress of the country.
What is real though is that the content of the political debate in Guyana has deteriorated into a `party' matter - come let us sing, drink and dance together, and oh! Don't forget to vote for me because you owe that to me for my long hard struggle for you. What is also real is that the largest segment of voters are youths under thirty-five. This segment lacks the wherewithal to make informed and pragmatic judgements of the important issues a potential government should be presenting for their consideration. Wake up Guyana! You owe it to your children and the generations to come. Wake up and demand from your leaders what people in other countries take for granted! Basic utilities and services, reliable electricity at affordable prices, clear water, sanitation, maintenance of infrastructure, far reaching educational opportunities, better work environment, better jobs, better opportunities. Politicians, see the electorate as they are! The shareholders of the resources you manage on their behalf! Act to maximise the returns to them and for them, add value and understand that Guyana belongs to all Guyanese and not only to you to do with as only you see fit. Take as your first challenge youth empowerment, for we are none of us immortal, and to not do so is to condemn Guyana to perpetual degradation. The youth are indeed the leaders of tomorrow, make them ready for the task.