There has been much discussion about the number of small parties which have announced their intention to contest the elections due on March 2, 2020. The formation of small parties at election time is not unusual in Guyana. Prior to 2001, before the amendment of the laws to provide for constituencies, many small parties contested elections. The requirement at that time was merely to provide a list of 65 nominees for the National Assembly, supported by 300 registered voters.
The Guyana Constitution provides that if the National Assembly decides, half of its seats can be contested by the first past the post system, providing that the other half of the seats is distributed to the parties that have contested the elections in such a way as to ensure that the seats that they receive are in direct proportion to the votes obtained. The Constitution Reform Commission of 1999-2001, having this constitutional provision in mind, recommended that the electoral system be reformed to provide for an element of first past the post.
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.
At its 130th Anniversary gala dinner during last week, the President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), Nicholas Deygoo-Boyer, outlined a development plan which he urged political parties to support and implement, whichever political party holds office. It is certainly a sensible proposal. But political parties have different approaches, different emphases, different rationales and profound jealousies. I still cannot get over the rejection by APNU+AFC’s of the Amalia Hydropower Project despite a stamp of approval given by Norconsult, a neutral expert appointed by Norway. But it was ‘Jagdeo’s’ project and coming after the secrecy of Amalia and the failure of the Skeldon sugar factory, it was not supported. Our rickety electricity production and distribution systems are once again in deep trouble, to the consternation of the consuming public, who have endured it for 40+ years. Industrial development will be further postponed. The sad fact is that, however sensible the proposal for an agreed development plan, our divisive and unstable political system, configured in the way that it now is, cannot accommodate any form of agreement.
It was refreshing to note that President Deygoo-Boyer and the GCCI recognised that something is wrong with our political system. The proposal, however, that Guyana goes backward to the full Westminster system, with a Prime Minister sitting in Parliament as the chief executive, and a mainly ceremonial President with moderate constitutional authority, will not resolve the dysfunctionalities of our political system. It was under a similar system, bequeathed by the British in the Independence Constitution, that the 1968 and 1973 elections and the 1979 referendum were rigged, the National Security Act providing for detention without trial was in force and the Mirror and remainder of the free press were decimated. It was under this system that Walter Rodney was assassinated. Guyana needs a governance system that has a good chance of breaking the cycle of political illegalities, violence and competition for ethnic supremacy which are the core political problems in Guyana. It has undergirded our political perspectives since 1957 and is responsible for our economic under-development, corruption, continuing poverty, crime and political instability.
The terms of the coalition between the APNU and AFC appear to have been agreed. The core elements are that Minister Khemraj Ramjattan will be the Prime Ministerial candidate and the split will be 60:40 instead of 70:30. AFC will obtain 10 seats in Parliament instead of 12 and 5 Cabinet positions, down from 6. President Granger will likely be head of the list, or otherwise choose the MPs and if he chooses to retire before the end of the term, Minister Ramjattan, as Prime Minister, will not succeed him. If this happens the Government will be forced to engage in the same constitutional dance that the PPP/C was forced into in 1999 when President Janet Jagan resigned, and which was extensively criticized by the then PNC/R. Mr. Sam Hinds had to resign as Prime Minister so that Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo could be appointed to that post to be in a position to succeed Mrs. Jagan when she resigned. Mrs. Jagan then resigned as President and Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo succeeded her. He then re-appointed Mr. Sam Hinds as Prime Minister. There is no other constitutional means by which this could have been accomplished.
Despite the apparent disagreements and extensive discussions to resolve them, observers were never in doubt that the coalition would survive, even if the AFC had to make concessions. The APNU in all its past manifestations has never legitimately won more 42 percent of the vote. With the AFC as a coalition partner, it won 50+ percent, the first time in its history. The AFC’s concessions were very modest, having regard to the party’s poor showing at the local government elections, managing to acquire only 4 percent of the vote. A drop from 10 percent of the vote in 2011, and thereabouts in 2015, to 4 percent in 2018, would have suggested that APNU was in a good position to demand more. But the need to have the AFC on board and the AFC’s aggressive posturing during negotiations obviously carried the day by forcing APNU to accept only nominal concessions in percentages and, more significantly, Khemraj Ramjattan as Prime Minister candidate. APNU was forced to drop its favoured friend Moses Nagamootoo.
During last week, the Stabroek News published an article (Akola Thompson “Towards a post-racial future” and a letter (Ryhaan Shaw “Little hope of a post-racial future for Guyana any time soon”) on the future of race in Guyana. Race is a difficult issue to discuss because of its complexity and intractability. But a peaceful and productive ethnic future for Guyana depends on how, and how urgently, we deal with the issue of race. Unless we do so soon, the sore of race in its several manifestations will continue to fester, producing infected material, draining the energy of Guyana into bad governance, marginalization and discrimination, crime and corruption.
Ethnic hatred, born of prejudices developed over centuries, having their bases usually, but not always, in economic factors, is difficult to eradicate, even as conditions of discrimination are alleviated by laws and social measures, as experience in the US has shown. Guyana’s situation may not be unique. Trinidad developed in a similar manner. Both countries have two large ethnic minorities that make up the large majority of the population. But our politics developed differently. The Peoples’ National Movement traditionally had a significant enough Indo-Trinidadian vote that kept it in office for decades during the era of Eric Williams. After that coalition fractured, Trinidad maintained a sizeable floating vote, comprising all sections of the populations, which resulted in periodic alternation between the parties, despite maintaining fairly rigid ethnic voting patterns and sensitivities.