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Friday, February 10, 2006
The Development of Political Parties

The immediate postwar period witnessed the founding of Guyana's major political parties, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the People's National Congress (PNC). These years also saw the beginning of a long and acrimonious struggle between the country's two dominant political personalities--Cheddi Jagan and Linden Forbes Burnham.

The end of World War II began a period of worldwide decolonization. In British Guiana, political awareness and demands for independence grew in all segments of society. At the same time, the struggle for political ascendancy between Burnham, the ""Man on Horseback"" of the Afro-Guyanese, and Jagan, the hero of the Indo-Guyanese masses, left a legacy of racially polarized politics that remained in place in the 1990s.

Jagan had been born in Guyana in 1918. His parents were immigrants from India. His father was a driver, a position considered to be on the lowest rung of the middle stratum of Guianese society. Jagan's childhood gave him a lasting insight into rural poverty. Despite their poor background, the senior Jagan sent his son to Queen's College in Georgetown. After his education there, Jagan went to the United States to study dentistry, graduating from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1942.

Jagan returned to British Guiana in October 1943 and was soon joined by his American wife, the former Janet Rosenberg, who was to play a significant role in her new country's political development. Although Jagan established his own dentistry clinic, he was soon enmeshed in politics. After a number of unsuccessful forays into Guiana's political life, Jagan became treasurer of the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA) in 1945. The MPCA represented the colony's sugar workers, many of whom were Indo- Guyanese. Jagan's tenure was brief, as he clashed repeatedly with the more moderate union leadership over policy issues. Despite his departure from the MPCA a year after joining, the position allowed Jagan to meet other union leaders in British Guiana and throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.

The springboard for Jagan's political career was the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), formed in 1946 as a discussion group. The new organization published the PAC Bulletin to promote its Marxist ideology and ideas of liberation and decolonization. The PAC's outspoken criticism of the colony's poor living standards attracted followers as well as detractors.

In the November 1947 general elections, the PAC put forward several members as independent candidates. The PAC's major competitor was the newly formed Labour Party, which, under J.B. Singh, won six of fourteen seats contested. Jagan won a seat and briefly joined the Labour Party. But he had difficulties with his new party's center-right ideology and soon left its ranks. The Labour Party's support of the policies of the British governor and its inability to create a grass-roots base gradually stripped it of liberal supporters throughout the country. The Labour Party's lack of a clear-cut reform agenda left a vacuum, which Jagan rapidly moved to fill. Turmoil on the colony's sugar plantations gave him an opportunity to achieve national standing. After the June 16, 1948 police shootings of five Indo-Guyanese workers at Enmore, close to Georgetown, the PAC and the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU) organized a large and peaceful demonstration, which clearly enhanced Jagan's standing with the Indo-Guyanese population.

Jagan's next major step was the founding of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) in January 1950. Using the PAC as a foundation, Jagan created from it a new party that drew support from both the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese communities. To increase support among the Afro-Guyanese, Forbes Burnham was brought into the party.

Born in 1923, Burnham was the sole son in a family that had three children. His father was headmaster of Kitty Methodist Primary School, which was located just outside Georgetown. As part of the colony's educated class, young Burnham was exposed to political viewpoints at an early age. He did exceedingly well in school and went to London to obtain a law degree. Although not exposed to childhood poverty as was Jagan, Burnham was acutely aware of racial discrimination.

The social strata of the urban Afro-Guyanese community of the 1930s and 1940s included a mulatto or ""coloured"" elite, a black professional middle class, and, at the bottom, the black working class. Unemployment in the 1930s was high. When war broke out in 1939, many Afro-Guyanese joined the military, hoping to gain new job skills and escape poverty. When they returned home from the war, however, jobs were still scarce and discrimination was still a part of life. By the time of Burnham's arrival on the political stage in the late 1940s, the Afro-Guyanese community was ready for a leader.

The PPP's initial leadership was multiethnic and left of center, but hardly revolutionary. Jagan became the leader of the PPP's parliamentary group, and Burnham assumed the responsibilities of party chairman. Other key party members included Janet Jagan and Ashton Chase, both PAC veterans. The new party's first victory came in the 1950 municipal elections, in which Janet Jagan won a seat. Cheddi Jagan and Burnham failed to win seats, but Burnham's campaign made a favorable impression on many urban Afro- Guyanese.

From its first victory in the 1950 municipal election, the PPP gathered momentum. However, the party's often strident anticapitalist and socialist message made the British government uneasy. Colonial officials showed their displeasure with the PPP in 1952 when, on a regional tour, the Jagans were designated prohibited immigrants in Trinidad and Grenada.

A British commission in 1950 recommended universal adult suffrage and the adoption of a ministerial system for British Guiana. The commission also recommended that power be concentrated in the executive branch, that is, the office of the governor. These reforms presented British Guiana's parties with an opportunity to participate in national elections and form a government, but maintained power in the hands of the British- appointed chief executive. This arrangement rankled the PPP, which saw it as an attempt to curtail the party's political power.

Source: U.S. Library of Congress