If one of the two main political groups in Guyana, the Peoples’ Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) or the A Partnership For National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) achieves an absolute majority at the March 2 general elections, one half of the population will feel alienated. This alienation has been the signal feature of Guyana’s politics since 1957. It has grown progressively worse since then, aggravated by and/or resulting in Guyana’s history of electoral manipulation, discrimination, and criminal and civil violence since 1962.
To eliminate this albatross, Guyana needs a political system where the main political parties alternate in power every two terms, or one where the two political parties share power equally. Since the former is difficult to constitutionally structure under a system of free, but adversarial, elections, the latter appears to be the only route out of a political dilemma which has emerged from the existence in Guyana of two large ethnic blocs that manifest their insecurities in fixed electoral choices.
After sixty years, no more evidence is needed that Guyana’s political system, based on majority rule, has become dysfunctional. I can point to two instances where this dysfunction has manifested itself.
I served on the Elections Commission for three general elections – 1992, 1997 and 2001. The leading PNC appointed commissioners were the late Neville Bissember, Malcolm Parris and Robert Corbin. At no time was a casting vote by the Chair necessary. The leading commissioners were expected to resolve contentious issues and did so. On occasions both leading PPP and PNC appointed commissioners resolved issues without clearance from their parties and were prepared to take the flak for it. Today, the degree of confrontation at deliberations of the Elections Commission are a reflection of that degenerating, systemic, dysfunction. We have virtually discarded the effort to discuss and agree. The only principles now applied is the seeking of unilateral advantage and the country be damned.
The Amaila Falls Hydropower fiasco is another example of how this dysfunction harms Guyana. From the 1960s it was recognized that hydropower was the pre-requisite to industrialization and economic progress in Guyana. In the 1960s, the PPP advanced plans for a small hydropower facility at Tiger Hill, but could not secure financing. The same occurred in the 1970s when the PNC proposed plans for a large facility at Mazaruni. Finally, the Amaila Falls Hydropower plans were developed and secured the requisite financing. It was approved by the IDB and the Norwegian Government, who were partially funding it and later, Norconsult, a consultant, at the instance of the Norwegians. But it was not approved by the Opposition, APNU and AFC, and the contractor pulled out. Amaila came after the failure of the US$200 million Skeldon Sugar factory thus the PPP’s track record was already tainted.
Instead of an open process with involvement at the outset of the Opposition and civil society, it was developed by a select few, largely in secret. The PPP/C government allowed opposition to the project to grow and released bits of information in response to criticism, too little, too late. Then when the PPP/C government lost its majority in 2011, the Ramotar government continued on essentially the same course with more openness. But it was too late. The Opposition did not support the project and the contractor pulled out, killing it. To date, the promised smaller hydro projects promised by the PNCR at that time have not materialised. The barely audible noises about gas powered turbines for electricity are no longer heard.
From 2006, Guyana’s political tableau began to change. PNCR voters manifested their dissatisfaction in a measurable way. It lost five seats to the newly-formed AFC. The same happened to the PPP/C which lost 3-4 percent of its votes to the AFC in 2011 and then to the APNU+AFC coalition in 2015. A significant factor was the emergence of some independent-minded voters among the electorate, probably due to the economic growth that started during the Hoyte era from about 1988 and continued in fits and starts since then. From this development the business and professional classes expanded some members of which did not rely on political favours.
While it is believed that most of the PPP/C and PNCR voters have now returned to their political homes, the biggest question marks are, firstly, whether the PPP/C will restore its pre-2011 absolute majority or remain permanently below 50 percent and, secondly, where will the now disaffected AFC supporters go, if they choose to vote. These elections, if free and fair, will signal what the future will look like.
Both large political parties have supported shared governance in the past, only because it is a popular issue and which may secure votes. Lack of political commitment have resulted in both parties having reneged on their promises, most recently the APNU+AFC. The most important issue facing Guyana is not oil, but governance. The main political parties must be pressured, as a first step, to commit in their manifestos to constitutional reform leading to shared governance. If our political system is not reformed, our oil income will be abused and dissipated, as has happened in so many countries. Guyana will remain a country politically divided and economically suffocating by the struggle for ethnic supremacy.