Post-election pains - as PNC ducks leadership question

Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
April 8, 2001

GUYANA'S political agony was continuing last week with the People's National Congress showing consistency as a poor loser in maintaining opposition to the governing People's Progressive Party (PPP).

Its old business-as-usual politics as usual is being demonstrated even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its third successive electoral defeat since October 1992 at elections deemed by ALL observers to be free and fair, "transparent and clean".

But it seems that sustaining the politics of non-cooperation with the government of 37-year-old President Bharrat Jagdeo in a threatening scenario of racial polarisation, may in fact be a smart way for the 72-year-old Hoyte to divert any serious consideration about his own replacement as PNC leader.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean Community, and beyond, it is the norm for a party to give priority to its leadership issue once it has consecutively lost two or three elections. In Guyana, Hoyte appears anxious to avoid this for as long as possible.

For, in an atmosphere of peace and structured dialogue between the government and opposition to grapple with problems raised by the PNC and concerns of the government for national development, those within the PNC who feel that the party must now seriously think of new leadership, may wish to make this a priority issue.

But Hoyte is busy keeping the pressure on the government, with the PNC taking advantage of its political strength in Georgetown, where it can quickly exploit race in organising protest demonstrations.

And where, it is also assured of the support of allies in the labour movement, such as the leadership of the Public Service Union, who seem ever willing to show political solidarity, even at the risk of fomenting further divisions within that union.

That scenario was manifesting itself again last week. The PNC, having lost out in an injunction in the High Court to prevent Jagdeo taking the oath as President of a new administration - something it had unsuccessfully sought against Janet Jagan following the 1997 election - switched to rallying its troops to oppose the reappointment of Dr Roger Luncheon as Head of the Presidential Secretariat (HPS).

One of the better known intellectuals and, some say "ideologically correct", frontline members of the PPP, Luncheon, a former medical doctor in the public service, was first appointed HPS, Cabinet Secretary and Secretary of the Defence Board by Dr. Jagan in the first PPP/Civic administration in October 1992.

Opposing Luncheon
As HPS, Luncheon functions as virtual head of the public service but with Permanent Secretaries in charge of their respective ministries. He was reappointed after the December 1997 election and, to the surprise of no one familiar with the politics of governance in Guyana, was reappointed last week.

The PSU itself never objected to Luncheon's appointment before the PNC's leader called for support as part of his own post-election political agenda for dialogue.

The PNC, which has a visceral dislike for Luncheon, one of the more prominent Afro-Guyanese in the leadership structure of the PPP, has now been justifying its opposition to his reappointment as HPS on the claim that there should be a "de-politicisation" of the public service.

At first glance, this may seem reasonable. But it is in fact a deliberate post-election move by the PNC to promote dissent within the PPP, where Luncheon enjoys popular support, and create a new demand around which it can mobilise opposition to the government as it continues its politics of sustaining disunity and making governance difficult.

To pick on Luncheon's appointment to talk about "depoliticisation of the public service", knowing of the extent to which it had "politicised" and racially polarised every institution of the country during its 28 years in power, is hardly a clever enough ploy by the PNC for even those who may not be sympathisers of the PPP administration.

While, compared to those under PNC rule who served as Head of the Presidential Secretariat and Cabinet Secretary, there is no doubt about Luncheon's political affiliation and activism, it is laughable for anyone to pretend that the appointees as HPS of either the late Forbes Burnham or Hoyte were "none political", including those now seeking to justify their own period of service.

The public service employees themselves know better than to fall for this PNC argument of convenience that Luncheon's reappointment is an act of bad faith on the part of President Jagdeo.

But in the current post-election atmosphere, poisoned with political bitterness by the defeated, and amid signals of resorting to the old weapons to sustain social tension and uncertainty, there is political investment for Hoyte's leadership in piling on resistance to Luncheon's reappointment.

Political Strategy
It is a political strategy that clearly impacts against any serious internal post-election assessment by the PNC to confront the factors that contributed to the PNC's third electoral defeat in a row with the restoration of electoral democracy in 1992.

One of those factors would be Hoyte's own leadership. The potential successors to Hoyte can hardly envisage the PNC advancing its gains against the PPP to win a free and fair election unless a replacement for Hoyte is found at the earliest opportunity for the party to face up to the challenge of Jagdeo's leadership of government.

As the dominant parties from the 1950s in the post-Cheddi Jagan/Forbes Burnham era, it is the PPP that has clearly dealt with the leadership factor in the choice of the young economist and former Finance Minister, Jagdeo, as President. At party level, he functions with full support of a PPP which has an ELECTED General Secretary.

In contrast, the party of the late Burnham, inherited by Hoyte in August 1985, continues to reflect a 'maximum leader' syndrome with even the party's General Secretary being APPOINTED by the PNC bossman.

There have been a number of casualties along the way as party secretary under Hoyte's leadership as well as the continuing postponement of any serious move to settle the successor question. This is the party leader who managed to avoid a live televised debate with the PPP presidential candidates and never got around to identifying his prime ministerial running mate - unlike all other parties.

It cannot be an attractive proposition for any of Hoyte's potential successors for a further significant postponement of the leadership issue - however much the current anti-government post-election tactics of the PNC may suit the incumbent.

Nor can there be, at the national level, a continuation of the politics that keep the PPP and PNC apart instead of their leaders being encouraged to make adjustments to meet and engage in constructive dialogue in an appropriate climate.

Hoyte can still use this final period of his leadership in a positive manner for which posterity could remember him with gratitude. Or he can continue to demonstrate how good he is in blocking efforts at national reconciliation and reconstruction. It is his choice.

Jagdeo must also ignore the fact that the PNC leader is seeking to dictate to him through the media and formally invite Hoyte to a meeting at which they could come up with at least a mutually agreed short-term agenda of priority issues in preparation for more structured dialogue for the longer term.

By his victory, Jagdeo can afford to be magnanimous and not engage in hair-splitting games of his own.

As of last week, amid the new protests being mounted by the PNC against Luncheon, while President Jagdeo was planing his first new cabinet, the imperatives for such dialogue seemed greater than ever in the nation's interest.

The Caribbean Community, having joined with international and local observer missions in giving its own clearance or approval to the March 19 elections as "free and fair", must now remain engaged, in whatever practical ways possible, to help Guyana in dealing with its state of persistent political agony.

The successor to Hoyte remains an issue for the PNC. That is their challenge.