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.
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.
Jaded by the PPP/C’s 23 years in office, many were elated at the coalition between the APNU and AFC because it offered the real possibility of ending the PPP/C’s long incumbency. APNU/PNCR had traditionally polled 40 to 42 percent of the vote and the AFC had obtained the support of 10 percent of the electorate in 2011. The Cummingsburg Accord, signed on February 14, 2018, and expiring on February 14, 2020, gave the AFC the Prime Ministership, 40 percent of the ministries and 12 seats, about 40 percent as it turned out, in the National Assembly. Discussions for a renewal of the Cummingsburg Accord prior to the March 2, 2020, general elections are not going well. Between the beginning stages, of the failure to find a creative interpretation of the Constitution to enable the Prime Minister to chair the Cabinet and, at the ending stages, the inability of the parties to agree on a formula for the division of spoils at the 2018 local government elections, and everything in between, it was anticipated that the coalition had challenges.
Soon after the formation of the Government in May 2015, dissatisfaction began to be expressed from within APNU that the AFC had been given an overgenerous portion of the coalition, about 40 percent, in National Assembly seats and in the Cabinet. Triumphalism and an unnatural confidence, born of an unnatural electoral history, that APNU can retain political power indefinitely without the AFC, led to the grumbling within APNU that the AFC had ‘got too much,’ that the Cummingsburg Accord was skewed in its favour. APNU failed to understand that it had to pay not merely for the coalition but also for the victory that the coalition would bring. Therefore, the 10 percent that the AFC was expected to bring to the coalition was worth the 40 percent price that APNU had to pay in order to dislodge the PPP/C and attain victory at the elections after 23 years of PPP/C rule.
As Guyana’s political season enters its beginning stages, a plethora of new political parties are coming forward to present their programmes to the electorate, seeking its support. While new parties emerging near to election time is not a new phenomenon, the numbers of new entrants to the political scene so far are unprecedented. Yesterday’s news suggest that another party, in addition to the Liberty and Justice Party (LJP), A New and United Guyana (ANUG) and The Citizens Initiative (TCI), and led by two prominent personalities, Messrs. Robert Badall and Nigel Hinds, is likely to be announced later this week. There is at least one other group organizing and preparing to launch a political party.
The immediate factor which may be responsible for the number of new political parties coming on stream at this time is probably the collapse of the Alliance For Change (AFC) which declined from 10 percent support in the 2011 general elections to 4 percent in the local government elections in 2018, and may have lost some more support since then. These new political parties could not have failed to observe that there is a pool of at least 6 percent of the electorate who may be looking for a political home. It is possible that the potential of attracting this support has been partially responsible for the number of new political parties being introduced to the electorate. It would not have been lost on these new parties that political support of the core Guyanese electorate has long been concretized by ethnic cleavages. Some are relying on the substantial youth vote on the basis that the youth are less motivated by ethnic considerations and more by matters of principle and policy.