The elections in 1961

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The campaign for the general elections to be held in August 1961 began early in the year. The issue of independence for Guyana featured prominently since the 1960 Constitutional Conference in London had reached an understanding that colonial rule would end after the new elections, and that the victorious party would lead the country to independence.

Ethnic polarisation which was already having an impact on Guyanese politics became even stronger with the entry of the pro-capitalist, anti-communist United Force (UF) in the election race. Already most Indians were supporting the PPP while the PNC was drawing most of the Africans to its camp. The UF appealed to wealthy Portuguese and people of mixed race, as well as Amerindians and some wealthy Indians in Georgetown.

The PNC and the UF had earlier failed in a plan to form a united front against the PPP, but they, nevertheless, worked with some anti-PPP trade union leaders to foment strikes and spread anti-government rumours during the 1959-61 period. Interestingly, this campaign was not directed at the big business community which exploited workers all over the country.

For the 1961 elections, the British Government appointed Sir Hugh Hallet, a retired British judge as the commissioner to demarcate the electoral boundaries of the constituencies. Hallet divided the country into 35 electoral districts in a very unfair manner, since some had much larger numbers of voters than others. The PPP protested the unfair division, pointing out that in its areas of political support, particularly in the Corentyne region, the constituencies were very large with the list of voters much higher than the average list for areas of opposition support. This "gerrymandering" gave the opposition parties an unfair advantage which would allow them to pick up more seats.

The PPP noted that at the 1960 Constitutional Conference Dr. Jagan had proposed an electoral boundary commission made up of three representatives - one each from India, Ghana and the United Nations - but this was rejected by the British Government in favour of the one-man commission.

Despite Hallet's actions, the PPP expressed its readiness to contest the elections. The PNC fielded candidates in all 35 constituencies while the UF contested in 34. The PPP nominated candidates for only 29 districts; it did not nominate candidates for the Rupununi, New Amsterdam and four districts in Georgetown, all areas where it knew it had no chances of winning. The party's strategy was to concentrate on the rural areas and not to expend its resources in areas where it felt it had little political support.

The PNC and the UF waged a bitter anti-communist campaign against the PPP. At around the same time, the Government had introduced legislation for the take-over of 51 primary schools which were administered by Christian churches. Some leading Christians saw this move as communist-inspired and they formed the Christian Social Council to oppose it. (The legislation was passed just before the Legislative Council was dissolved). This group also joined in the election campaign by openly urging church congregations to vote against the PPP which it claimed was against religion.

A political arm of the Catholic Church, the Sword of the Spirit, and its affiliate, the newly formed Defenders of Freedom, also joined in the attack on the PPP Government. Significantly, many of the leaders of the Defenders of Freedom were also leading members of the UF. All of these anti-PPP groups were heavily backed by the US-based Christian Anti-Communist Crusade which spent US$45,000 in the election campaign, in addition to providing the UF and its support groups with large quantities of anti-communist propaganda materials for distribution all over the country.

Bishop Lester Guilly, head of the Catholic Church in Guyana, entered the campaign by calling on Catholics to vote against the PPP, claiming that the nationalisation of the 51 schools, previously controlled by Christian denominations, amounted to an act of "godlessness" by the PPP Government.

American opposition to a PPP victory was also clearly expressed in the US media and even within the US Government. One American Senator went so far as to state that the United States must take imminent and aggressive action to keep Guyana from "going communist". And in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on 20 April 1961, President John Kennedy warned that "the forces of communism" must not be underestimated "in Cuba or anywhere in the world." For the Americans, "anywhere in the world" also included Guyana where they already regarded the PPP, which had close relations with Cuba, as "communist" and could give the Soviet Union permission to establish another military base in the Americas. Kennedy said that he wanted it to be clearly understood that the United States would "not hesitate in meeting its primary obligations which are to the security of our nation."

Kennedy's statement was eagerly utilised by the opposition parties and groups in their anti-communist campaign against the PPP.

The British were also hoping for an opposition victory. A section of the British press suggested that the British Government should suspend the Guyana constitution should the PPP win.

There were a few outbreaks of violence when PPP public meetings in areas of PNC support were broken up and the speakers violently attacked. PNC supporters armed themselves with coconut brooms, the party's election symbol, and lashed out at persons whom they felt were PPP supporters. Such actions worked to the detriment of the PNC since in some marginal constituencies, they caused some voters to change any positive opinions they might have had of the PNC.

The campaign of the UF promoted "people's capitalism" and "economic dynamism". Its manifesto, entitled Highway to Happiness, promised US$500 million in American private investment and an additional US$500 million American loans for government projects. While it attacked the PPP for being "communist", it also denounced the "socialism" of the PNC.

The promise of American support by the UF for development projects in Guyana was dismissed by most Guyanese as mere "election propaganda" since no American investment firm announced any intention of giving support to such plans. And with regard to the proposed loans, when pressed by the PPP to explain their terms, including interest rates and time periods for pay back, the UF could not provide answers.

In its campaign, the PNC came out in support of independence for Guyana. This change in policy was an about-face since the party had refused to support immediate independence during the 1960 Constitutional Conference. This new position was no doubt due to the pressures placed on the party by African students from Guyana, the Caribbean and Africa in London who had sharply criticised Burnham and the PNC for opposing independence.

Burnham on 27 March categorically stated that "Guyana will be independent in 1962." Then on 15 July, in an interview with the Guiana Graphic, he declared, "Which ever party is returned in a majority, either directly or indirectly, has got the right to lead the country to independence." With the support of the executive committee of the PNC, Burnham said that if the PPP should win, he would go with Jagan to London to get independence for Guyana. Burnham himself was very confident that the PNC would win the elections, and he openly boasted that he would be the first Premier of the country.

But Burnham's declaration found strong opposition from Sydney King, the Party's general secretary who on 19 July resigned from the PNC in protest and withdrew his name as a PNC candidate for the general elections. In a widely circulated statement, King declared: "I am sure that Burnham's statement is dangerous to the African people - I cannot be any part of Burnham's plan. His plan is to help Jagan win independence. A seat is reserved for him on Jagan's plane, he boasts."

The PNC responded on 30 July by expelling King. In an accompanying statement, the PNC said it was "unequivocally committed to independence for British Guiana and will not swerve from its present plan which has been accepted by the Congress and the executive of the Party of which Mr. King was a part."

The PPP presented a manifesto which, in addition to outlining its achievements during the 1957-61 period, listed its plans for further development of the country. Among the objectives it set was to expand agriculture through research and new techniques, expanding land settlement schemes, and the increase in labour productivity through education and training.

The main objective, however, was the attainment of independence for Guyana. The PPP stated that on winning independence, the Government would pursue a neutralist policy of friendship and cooperation with all countries and would not allow Guyana to be used as a military base by any nation.

The Legislative Council was dissolved by the Governor on 14 June 1961, and elections were held on 21 August. After an incident-free day of voting, the PPP was declared the winner with 20 seats. The PNC won 11 and the UF the remaining 4. The UF was able to win the Amerindian districts of the Rupununi and the North West District where Catholic and Anglican missionaries were very influential. The party also won two marginal seats in Georgetown where PPP supporters, angered by the PNC supporters' campaign of violence, decided in the absence of PPP candidates in their districts, to cast their votes for the UF which they saw as the "lesser of two evils".

The overall results of the elections showed that the PPP won 42.6 percent of the total votes cast while the PNC obtained 41 percent and the UF 16.3 percent. The attainment of this low percentage by the PPP was not unusual in countries which had "first-past-the-post" or constituency systems of elections. A similar situation existed at the very time of the Guyana elections in Great Britain where that Government held a majority of seats but with a minority of the votes cast.

In the Guyana elections, what must be taken into consideration was the fact that the PPP's total number of votes would have been higher if it had contested in all 35 constituencies, instead of only 29. Further, the party's interest in the elections was in winning a majority of seats and not a majority of the total votes.