Democracy is more than voting and elections
Lessons from Guyana and the Caribbean
‘From Egypt to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the people are finding out that the entire process of voting and elections is stacked against change,’ writes Horace Campbell. We need ‘new forms of politics’ to transform our social system.
In this time of seismic changes internationally, it is becoming clearer each day that new forms of politics are needed to give expression to the deep desire for transformation of this social system that places profits before humans. From Egypt to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the people are finding out that the entire process of voting and elections is stacked against change. After rising up against the Mubarak regime in January and February, the electoral process in Egypt has handed a parliamentary majority to social elements who want to roll back the rights of women. In particular, the Salafists (one of the more conservative branches of the Islamic faith) have risen to second place after the November ‘elections’ in Egypt. Those who were able to use the mosque as a platform for political engagement during the era of repression have emerged with over 60 per cent of the Parliamentary seats, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
The Salafists, whose members follow a strict form of Islam, benefit from support from the most conservative forces in Saudi Arabia.
The other recent lesson has been that of the DRC where the state structures of Mobutism are now occupied by a clique around Joseph Kabila. This society which is larger than the size of Western Europe lacks the infrastructure to organise real elections but the United Nations and all of the top members of the United Nations Security Council supported a farcical procedure where voting was supposed to have taken place. As I wrote this article, the press reports were that Kabila was ahead of Mr Etienne Tshisekedi, the principal contender out of a field of more than nine presidential candidates.
Most of the media reporting on the elections in the DRC focused on logistical questions about how to count the votes of more than 30 million voters in a society where there were more than 18,000 parliamentary candidates competing for 500 parliamentary seats. As in many parts of Africa, politics is now a vocation for those involved in influence-peddling so that many of the politicians are not interested in question of social justice. This does not mean that the people do not want justice.
Today I draw from the lessons of the recent elections and the aftermath in Guyana in South America to draw attention to the clear reality that prolonged political mobilisation is needed for a new form of politics, because, even when people vote, their votes are not respected. The shooting of unarmed protesters in Georgetown Guyana, this week holds a very bad omen for the manipulation of racial divisions so that a discredited leadership can stay in power.
AFTERMATH OF ELECTIONS IN GUYANA
Another front in the global struggle for social justice is now opening in Guyana. Guyana, we should recall, was the home of Walter Rodney, who was assassinated in 1980. Much like the struggles now taking shape in the USA, the Middle East, and other places, workers, students, mothers, fathers, and the population of this South American nation have once again joined the global struggle for political and economic change. Since political independence, Guyana has been overseen by political careerists who manipulate racial insecurity between the Indian and African workers.
Some Pambazuka readers will recall that when Forbes Burnham was president of Guyana, he ruled by mobilising Afro-Guyanese against their fellow Guyanese who were of Indian descent. Walter Rodney was assassinated in 1980 when he challenged the regime and sought to mobilise the Indian and African workers to fight for basic rights of decent jobs, the rights of workers and all of the rights won by working people. The organisation that he worked with was appropriately called the Working People’s Alliance. This was one of the only progressive formations that survived the assassination of Rodney and the implosion of the left in Grenada in 1983.
The party that claimed to be a progressive left party in Guyana was called the People’s Progressive Party. This party came to power in 1992 and for 19 years held power in a society where conditions deteriorated so badly that Guyana was one of the countries where the population was decreasing because of outmigration. On 28 November, there was an election in Guyana. The traditional People’s National Congress and sections of the Working Peoples Alliance had entered into an alliance called ‘A Partnership for National Unity’ (APNU). When the election results were announced, the APNU rejected the results and called for a clear publication of the Statement of Polls.
OCCUPY MOVEMENT REACHES GUYANA
On Tuesday 6 December, supporters of APNU staged a peaceful protect in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Attempts to occupy public squares and protest have followed in the wake of disputed election results, which gave the ruling party the right to form the government. This is in spite of the fact that according to the published results, the incumbent party received less than 50 per cent of the votes. Given the closeness of the announced results and the anomalies exposed by the misuse of power over the election machinery by the incumbent party, the main opposition political force has called for verification and audit of the election results.
The weakened neoliberal government of the People’s Progressive Party opened fire on peaceful protestors with rubber bullets. The swiftness with which the government moved to put down the Occupy movement in Guyana is reminiscent of the ongoing attack and removal of protestors in the United States and in other countries. After all the Occupy Wall Street Movement had created new platforms for democratic engagement with their general assemblies and vigorous educational campaigns. It is not by chance that one of the chants of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is, ‘This is what Democracy looks like.’
The Occupy Georgetown movement wanted to democratise the public spaces in Guyana but the nervous government reacted with force. Reports emerging from Guyana speak about the ways in which the movement is reorganising and regrouping to put pressure for verification of the election results, and to change and bring reform to this small South American nation to benefit the ordinary people. The people are demanding that their votes be counted, and have vowed to remain mobilised to fight against the scourge of corruption in leadership, through which a new super elite now control power. The disputed election in Guyana and the rise of a movement to enlarge democracy is another example of the rising of popular movements against neoliberal governments.
INTERNATIONAL STRUGGLES AGAINST NEOLIBERALISM
Guyana was among the first set of countries in the late 1980s to adopt lock stock and barrel, new economic policies directed by Washington and Wall Street, when it implemented the IMF and Paris Club-imposed structural adjustment policies in 1989. Such policies – which were imposed on Guyana and in many other countries of Africa, Asia, and the Third World – have served to increase the inequalities between the elites and the ordinary people. Today, Guyana ‘ranks among the most corrupt countries’ in the world. One popular daily newspaper in Guyana recently reported that ‘in a survey of 180 countries, Guyana fell to 126 with a score of 2.6 out of 10’ of the most corrupt countries in the world. ‘It is the lowest ranked English-speaking Caribbean nation on the list and the second lowest ranked Caricom (Caribbean) territory behind Haiti.’ The report further stated that Guyana shares its ranking with seven other countries: Indonesia, Honduras, Ethiopia, Uganda, Libya, Eritrea and Mozambique.
While the struggle for political social justice in Guyana is much more reminiscent of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the underlying factors which exacerbates growing inequality between the rich and poor is reminiscent of the on-going struggles by the 99 per cent movement in the USA and some parts of Europe. It represents a growing global consciousness movement against the excesses of the banker class, whose unbridled power over the global economy has unleashed the most corrupt leaders and institutions ever let loose on the poor.
Over the last 30 years we have witnessed the damage done to the democratic ideal in most parts of the world, as a new class of corrupt leaders has emerged to represent the interest of drug barons, local and international warlords, and the global banker class. Hence, governments have become hostage to this new class. In countries like Guyana the government answers and represents the interest of the underworld, while in countries such as the USA, political operatives answer and have become hostage to big money. This is leading to ineffective governmental responses. What appears to be governmental response to the issues of inequality has emerged as fronts for more profit making of private capital. This is leading to more inequality.
ELECTIONS UNDER THE WATCH OF DRUG BARONS AND ARMED CAMPS
The Guyanese struggles for democracy and democratisation are part of a wider struggle in the Caribbean. While tensions simmer in Guyana, the ruling Jamaica Labour Party in Jamaica has announced that elections will be held in that island society on 29 December. The ruling party is the party that had been associated with the alleged drug baron, Dudus Cooke, who was extradited to New York after fierce gun battles in one of the top Garrison communities in West Kingston last year. Bruce Golding, the Prime Minister who was accused of sheltering Cooke, has stepped down for a younger leader, Andrew Holiness. This new leader and his supporters are doing everything possible to avoid the real discussion of Issues in the Jamaican elections.
But even more challenging for the democratisation of the Jamaican society is the choke hold of the IMF over the society. Jamaica has one of the worst debt burdens in the world, with a gross public debt of 123 per cent of GDP. None of the two mainstream Jamaican Parties, the People’s National Party or the ruling JLP dares to make repudiation of the debt a central issue for the forthcoming elections of 29 December. Mark Weisbrot, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. has written on the ways in which this debt burden has impoverished the people and stifled the possibilities for breaking out of external domination.
Weisbrot and many others have brought to international attention the reality that the interest burden of the debt for Jamaica has averaged 13 per cent of GDP over the last five years.
He wrote that:
‘This is twice the burden of Greece (6.7 percent of GDP), which is in turn the highest in the eurozone. (It is worth keeping in mind that the burden of the debt can vary widely depending on interest rates, and on how much is borrowed from the country’s central bank — Japan has a gross public debt of 220 percent of GDP but pays only about 2 percent of GDP in annual net interest, so it doesn’t have a public debt problem.)
‘Not surprisingly, a country that is paying so much interest on its debt does not have much room in its budget for other things. For the 2009/2010 fiscal year, Jamaica’s interest payments on the public debt were 45 percent of its government spending.’
The political parties discourage real debate on this issue. One small group that sought to make the cases of Dudus Cooke and the IMF debt burden the central issue called for the start of the Occupy movement in Jamaica but this call was rubbished by the media and the talking heads who use talk radio to divert the oppressed in Jamaica and the Caribbean from the issues of democratic control by the working people.
Both Jamaica and Guyana, as in most oppressed countries, push on with the sheer perseverance of the people. Remittances from abroad by the sons and daughters overseas ensure that the basic requirements of life continue. While those outside assist those inside to keep body and soul together. The governments are under the heel of the IMF the police for the international bankers who represent the one per cent of the world.
DEMOCRATIC CHANGE WILL NOT BE REGISTERED IN PARLIAMENTS
The experiences of Greece and Italy have demonstrated that as the chronic crisis of capitalism deepens, the international financial oligarchs want to take away the democratic rights of working peoples. Both societies are now being governed by unelected technocrats who are prepared to impose ‘austerity’ measures on the working peoples. Both the leaders of France and Germany are scheming for a reorganisation of political power within Europe that would take away the basic democratic rights of the peoples of the European Union. These leaders see the so-called markets as being more important than the wellbeing of the people and want to see ‘balanced budgets’ irrespective of the costs.
In all of the cases mentioned we can see that elections and parliaments are spaces that can only serve the people when the popular powers of the people are realised elsewhere. As C. L. R James mentioned in another revolutionary era:
‘Revolutions are not carried out in Parliaments, they are only registered there.’
The mass mobilisation for social justice that has been spreading across the world has the seeds of prolonged popular struggles for democratisation and democratic change. Progressive forces must work hard to ensure that these struggles are not derailed by those who will mobilise racial and religious divisions to weaken the 99 per cent.