The argument that the constitutional arrangements which exist in Guyana today are an obstacle to national unity, or at least, fairness and legitimacy of the political system, was not started by Eric Phillips, but he is its most recent advocate. The advancement of this idea, but not with the vehemence of Eric Phillips, began shortly after Guyana returned to democracy in 1992 and its main advocate at that time was the WPA. Around this period or shortly after, a group within the PNC began to advocate shared governance, though not specifically constitutional reform away from the Westminster system. ROAR was also an advocate of shared governance. The issue of constitutional reform to accommodate shared governance reached its climax during the constitutional reform process in 1999-2000, where it was rejected. The issue arose again after the 2001 elections when the opposition published detailed proposals on shared governance which would have entailed further constitutional reform.
Eric Phillips’s argument, sadly, lacks any cogency or particularity as to why the Westminster system is Apernicious and why Aonly a civil society-led, shared governance model can rescue this deepening human tragedy. The Adeepening human tragedy consists of Mr. Phillips well known criticisms of the government. These can be found in his letter in the Stabroek News of Friday April 17.
The Westminster system is a British model which was imposed on or adopted by all the colonies upon independence and has been retained in its essentials in most of them. It has been argued by Mr. Phillips and others that the Westminster system is inadequate to deal with societies like Guyana with large ethnic minorities seeking or requiring separate political representation in government. In Guyana, the argument goes, the system works against the African Guyanese population because, having regard to the ethnic voting patterns, they can never gain political power since they comprise a smaller ethnic group than Indian Guyanese, itself not a majority ethnic group. There are other subsidiary issues such as alleged discrimination which only political authority can resolve. Mr. Phillips goes further than other, earlier advocates of constitutional change to institutionalize shared governance, by suggesting that it is a fundamental human right for all Guyanese.
I have just returned from Bermuda where I attended a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on which I represent Guyana. The population is 62,000, (as of 1990) of whom sixty percent is black and forty percent white. The United Bermuda Party (UBP) was in office for many years before and after self-government. It was then seen as a party representing the interests of, and drew its essential support from, white Bermudans even though it was led for many years by Edward Richards, a Guyanese of African descent, who had migrated to Bermuda in 1930, joined the UBP and became the first black Bermudan to hold the office of Premier. He is regarded by many as the father of modern Bermuda. Allegations by black Bermudans of discrimination were prevalent. How did a party, accused of representing the interests of a minority of the population, hold on to power democratically for so long? The answer is, as all serious politicians would know – by seeking support across the political divide and making alliances with as many groups as possible. This is what the UBP did. It was the key factor responsible for the UBPs longevity in office. As happens in politics, the coalition eventually unraveled and the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) is now in office. This political process plays out in many countries in the world, including the United States.
Between the years 1964 and 1992, two things of relevance to this issue occurred in Guyana. The first was the decline of Guyana’s economy. The second was the rigging of elections and establishment of authoritarian rule. The cumulative effect of these two developments was the shrinking of political support for the PNC although its electoral support remained intact as the results of the 1992 elections showed. To many, the PNCs maintenance of its electoral strength after so many years in office confirmed the strength of ethnic voting patterns and the argument that ethnic insecurity is an important factor in Guyana’s politics.
In the meantime the PPP fought against the economic and political policies being implemented and organized for the day when electoral fairness would return. Once again two important developments took place. Against enormous odds and with great courage, the PPP took up the cause of the Amerindian population by, year after year, travelling to hinterland areas, listening to problems, advocating solutions and organizing the people. This was painstaking, dangerous and dedicated work carried out with enormous courage and sacrifice, but driven by humanistic considerations and not by political cynicism. The result was that the PPP won over the support of the Amerindian people. The second development was that from about the same time, the mid-1960s, a dangerous period for the PPP, it returned to Region 10, in particular Linden, and starting with small steps such as the selling of a few Mirror newspapers, began to slowly organize as a result of the same considerations. The result was that the PPP won over significant support from the African Guyanese population at Linden where it established and still has an office, once again by painstaking work. By these methods, in areas of traditional opposition support, the PPP began to win friends, and eventually some votes.
This explains why, with a population of Indian Guyanese of just over 40 percent and declining, the PPP commands the support of 54 percent of the electorate. If all Indian Guyanese voted for the PPP at the last elections, it would have received 14 percent of its votes from non-Indian Guyanese.
Since all Indian Guyanese do not vote for the PPP, it is clear that the latters success results from its political work and not merely from ethnic voting patterns. Why has the opposition party(s) not seized the opportunities available to whip up support across the ethnic divide as the PPP and the UBP did. They already had 16 plus years to do so. And even assuming ethnic voting patterns, the possibilities still exist. A full 16 percent of the population describe themselves as mixed, according to the last census. Surely they would have no ethnic allegiance to any political party and ought to be susceptible to persuasive political arguments.
It seems to me that the attack on the Westminster system and the demand for power sharing are motivated by and are a confession of political failure. The opposition has failed to do its work and is now relying on allegations of victimhood to secure political office.
I hasten to add that I am not opposed to a far greater degree of political inclusiveness than exists at the moment. The PPP supports such a position. Steps have already been taken in the reforms to the National Assembly and elsewhere to enhance co-operation. I also confess that more can be done but the charged political atmosphere has been a hindrance. And shared governance is not the only way, or necessarily even the best way, to treat with Guyana’s political divisions. And a change in the constitution to effect shared governance is not necessary. It is not a constitutional issue; it is a political issue. A coalition government does not require constitutional change. And even if you want to entrench shared governance in the constitution, political agreement must first be obtained. But as I said at another place, you cannot expect marriage without courtship. When the atmosphere improves and the courtship starts, developments will flow naturally and inexorable towards a situation more conducive to further measures to enhance inclusivity in governance mechanisms. It must also not be forgotten that the adversarial political system has proved to be the most effective and enduring in this era of liberal democracy. This requires an effective opposition, with the potential and capacity of taking political office in free and fair elections and willing to relinquish such office in similarly organized elections. The PPP, UBP and numerous other experiences worldwide show that this is possible for the current opposition in Guyana. Such an opposition is the highest expression of good governance and offers the greatest protection to minorities. Shared governance is a far less optimal solution as Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago have shown in the past and as Kenya and Zimbabwe are showing today.
Notwithstanding the above, the PPP is on record as stating that upon completion of the constitutional reforms, consideration could be given to moving to a higher level of inclusiveness. Situations can certainly arise in the conditions in this period, far different to when Dr Jagan made the supportive statement about shared governance quoted by Mr. Phillips recently, where, upon additional political advances and the establishment of the bona fides of the opposition, an advanced form of inclusiveness can become a topic for serious public debate. Some of these are the courtship I talked about; a strong, vibrant, political opposition, wedded to democracy and peaceful politics; completion of all existing reforms; and the existence of consensual conditions in Guyana which invite such a course.