I had the privilege of being interviewed on the SPOTLIGHT TV programme on Channel 9 in the distinguished company of Henry Jeffrey and Tacuma Ogunsaye, both knowledgeable and experienced observers of the political scene. We had all written recently on constitutional reform and the moderator, Dr. Brantley Walrond, felt that it was a topic of great importance in which his viewers would be interested.
We had all agreed in principle in our writings that Guyana needs a constitutional system that would facilitate the two major political parties sharing the executive in coalition government as a permanent feature of our political life. We recognized, however, that the greatest danger in such a constitutional scheme would be the absence of an effective opposition. Dr. Jeffrey and I had different approaches but I am open to other ideas as I am sure he is.
Two points of importance arose. Firstly it was agreed that possibilities in relation to oversight of a coalition government other than those discussed in my and Dr. Jeffrey’s articles are potentially available from Guyana’s unique conditions, including our regional system, if it is duly empowered. Upon later reflection, it occurred to me that an elected upper house of regional representatives is possible.
Secondly, Mr. Ogunsaye said, and we agreed, that between the jeopardies of shared governance with a weak opposition, and the negative consequences that would continue to ensue with a minority government or a ‘winner take all system,’ he would prefer to take the risk of shared governance with a weak opposition now, and continue to work towards a system that would enhance oversight over such a government. He believes that unless ‘winner take all’ is abandoned now, Guyana will continue on a path of political instability and ethnic dissatisfaction.
It was noted that neither of the major political parties had in recent times if ever, demonstrated an interest in transformative constitutional reform to end the ‘winner does not take all’ system. Up to 1991 Cheddi Jagan supported such a system but after the general elections of 1992, the PPP completely changed course and grew comfortable with the Burnham constitutional construct. In 2011 this appeared initially to pay handsome dividends by enabling the PPP to hold on to office in a minority administration with only a plurality of the vote. But it has turned out, perhaps contrary to its expectations, it was in office without power, a situation that it complained about repeatedly during the colonial era between 1957-1964 when it was in office.
Desmond Hoyte had announced support for ‘shared governance’ in 2003. Mr. Ogunsaye attributed this to ACDA’s vigorous campaign at that time. But since then the PNCR has done absolutely nothing to campaign for the realization of shared governance. We all agreed that constitutional reform will not come about unless there is a mass campaign by civil society to persuade the political parties that the time has come for a further review of the constitution in the direction of abolishing the ‘winner take all’ system.
Merely writing about constitutional reform as a means to create national unity, as well as about the need for national unity itself, as many people have been doing recently, appears to have tapped a stream of consciousness in the public. This could be the only reason for the unity dance which has been going on in the past few weeks between the political parties. The PNCR has proposed national unity by way, presumably, of a coalition government. It has not been fully explicit. The PPP has not responded. But it has announced its own ‘national democratic front.’ The potential structure of such a ‘front’ has not been announced, but Mr. Granger has publicly indicated his interest in joining it. Since there has been no response to his declared interest, there has been speculation that the ‘national democratic front’ is merely an attempt to upgrade the civic, which has long ceased to function as a body by, among other things, giving it a new name.
A PPP support group cannot be described as national. In 1992 there was justification for advancing the civic in such terms. It represented the broad non-PNC section of the middle strata which was very much united in campaigning for political changes and free and fair elections through GUARD and others groups. And the PNC was nursing it’s wounds in a non-cooperative manner.
The political situation, twenty-two years on, is so different that a PPP support group will not be accepted as ‘national.’ But the use of the epithet suggests that the PPP has become aware that there is a growing body of opinion, including those of its own supporters, for some structural form of national unity inclusive of the opposition dictated by both its change in electoral fortunes and economic issues. The recent flurry of activity and political talk about unity appears to be giving recognition to these developments as well as portraying the Party as being interested in national unity, which is now a popular call.
It has been a great disappointment to many that the combined Opposition did not have on its agenda the subject of constitutional reform as the principal issue after the indecisive results of the 2011 elections, which Mr. Ogunsaye has criticized. A constitution that allows a minority government to remain in office indefinitely is not the greatest constitution in the world, as proclaimed by the PPP. It is seriously flawed. It remained so after the reform process of 1999-2000 because of the failure of the main political parties to confront the presidential system and its absence of checks and balances.
By failing to focus on constitutional reform since 2011 the Opposition may have lost a golden opportunity to have the upcoming elections as a clear referendum on the issue. To believe that it could have influenced governance and decision making from the opposition benches was a grievous error. Hopefully, it will use the opportunity of the election campaign to attempt to correct its mistake and confront the issue for the Guyanese people as the most, or one of the most urgent and important facing the nation at this time.