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The 1953 general elections was a major landmark in our nation’s history highlighted by:
· the beginning of the involvement of the Guyanese masses in the process of voting at national elections;
· the first organised involvement of massive numbers of women and youth in the electoral process;
· the participation in elections for the first time of a political party rooted in the masses;
· the presentation for the first time of a slate of candidates reflecting genuine national unity in class, ethnic and religious terms;
· the presentation for the first time of a manifesto opposing the interests of the colonial elite and promoting the demands of the broad masses;
· the first electoral victory of a political party vehemently opposed by the colonial power and big business.
The Peoples Progressive Party at its formation on January 1, 1950 intensified the agitation started by its predecessor, the Political Affairs Committee for constitutional reform. This led to the British government sending a Constitutional Commission led by E.J. Waddington in late 1950.
This commission resulted in the framing of a new constitution termed the `Waddington Constitution’, which removed property and income restrictions and introduced universal adult suffrage.
This victory was not a hand out from the British but resulted from the vigorous representation and agitation during the hearings held by the Commission.
The people recognised the value of this victory and made full use of this new opportunity. As Dr Cheddi Jagan stated in his `West on Trial’:
“The 1953 election campaign roused unprecedented enthusiasm throughout the country. For the first time in our history the people were really involved; it was their first election under universal adult suffrage. So great was interest that the percentage (74.8 per cent) who turned out to vote was higher than in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, where the figures ranged between 53 and 65 per cent.”
The very high turn out at the elections would not have been possible without the full involvement of two vital groups within our nation - the women and the youth. They had previously had very little linkage to political life but the PPP and its forerunner the PAC deliberately worked to encourage their involvement. In 1946, the PAC assisted the formation of the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO) from which the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO) evolved in May 1953. In 1952, the PPP established its Youth section, the Pioneer Youth League which later assumed the name Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO) in 1957.
In the 1953 elections, members of the Women and Youth sections contested as candidates and in very large numbers participated in the campaign leading to a very high turn out of women and youth voting solidly for the PPP.
Elections before 1953, with restricted franchise, were dominated by individuals from among the sugar planters, big business and the medical and legal professions. These contested as Independents or in small Political Parties organized specifically for election purposes. Whatever political parties were formed were organized and led by such individuals and never represented the interests of workers, farmers or other oppressed people.
The 1953 elections saw a decisive change with the PPP rooted in the masses with structures established in different geographical areas and openly championing the interests of the poor.
The PPP took the very bold and honest approach in presenting in its manifesto for the 1953 elections measures aimed at reducing the dominance of big business and improving the conditions of the oppressed masses.
The Planter Class and Big Business reacted very aggressively against the PPP. As Dr. Jagan pointed out in his book, `Forbidden Freedom’:
“During the election a fierce campaign was launched against us by our opponents with the help of the press, pulpit and radio…
In all of this the newspapers took a leading part. This was not surprising, for the three daily newspapers-the Daily Chronicle, the Daily Argosy and the Guiana Graphic - have interlocking directorates representing sugar, mining, commerce and banking.”
In spite of the intense campaign by these forces, the PPP was able to develop a mass base and create a very strong expression of National Unity. This was reflected in the PPP’s list of Candidates contesting the elections as well as the overwhelming support received from the voters. Support was widespread among the local businessmen, the middle class professionals, workers, farmers and the unemployed drawn from all race groups.
At the end of the elections, the PPP won 18 out of the 24 seats. The other Parties which contested were the National Democratic Party (NDP), the United Farmers and Workers Party and the Guiana National Party. In all, there were 131 candidates of which 78 were independents. The NDP won two seats and four independents also won their seats. The 6 seats which the PPP did not win were in the interior which was difficult and costly to reach.
The performance of the PPP was recognised and praised by the Registration Officer, Mr. H. Harewood M.B.E., who said in a radio broadcast on May 2, the Sunday after the elections:
“The victorious Party has achieved something in the political field for which British Guyanese of all races, classes and creeds may be grateful. It seems that it succeeded in making racial distinctions irrelevant to victory…
In 1953, however, all party lines cut clean across race and British Guiana has thus taken the first step towards thinking rationally.”
This was the excellent foundation that was created by the PPP’s victory on April 27, 1953. Unfortunately it was eroded in a very short period by forces within and outside of the Party.
With a large majority of the elected members, the PPP started to utilise the limited powers provided by the Waddington Constitution to fulfil the promises made in its elections manifesto. This alarmed the British who moved after just 133 days of the new administration to suspend the constitution on October 9 and dismiss the ministers.
The suspension of the constitution which was enforced by British soldiers brought in two warships was used by the British government to install their puppets in the “interim government”, ban public meetings, declare the youth section to be illegal, impose restrictions on leaders of the PPP and selectively to charge and imprison leaders such as Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Martin Carter and Rory Westmas while encouraging the ambitions of leaders such as Forbes Burnham, J.P. Latchmansingh and Jainarine Singh resulting in the split of the Party in 1955.
The result was the fracture of the national movement, the subversion of the democratic process during the period of PNC dictatorship and the undermining of efforts since 1992 to rebuild the damaged physical, economic and social infrastructure.
As we reflect on the 50 years that have passed since the great victory of April 27, 1953, there are many lessons that we need to give attention to at all times.
One major lesson is that universal adult suffrage was not a gift but the result of a long and difficult struggle. With the principle of “one person - one vote” it opened the democratic process. But it should not be taken for granted. It was taken away for two and a half decades and required another intense struggle for it to be restored in 1992. Democracy must be defended at all cost.
Another vital lesson is that national development is undermined when national unity is subverted for narrow political self-interest. Imagine how developed Guyana would have been today if the unity of the national movement of 1953 was maintained in the fight for political independence and especially after it was achieved?
The Father of our Nation, the late Dr Cheddi Jagan worked tirelessly for national unity and national development. He mourned the lost opportunity of the united national movement but always remained highly optimistic that Guyanese would revive what he called “the spirit of nineteen fifty three”
In celebrating the 50th anniversary of that great victory of April 27, 1953, all Guyanese should make a pledge to work for the realisation of that critical need to create once more that magnificent “spirit of 1953.”