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.
The PPP and PNCR, in discussions on the implementation of the proposal, concluded that they could not demarcate boundaries in time for the 2001 elections. They, therefore, agreed as a temporary measure, that the regions should be designated as constituencies for the 2001 elections and immediately after the elections discussions would be undertaken to fix the number of, and demarcate, the boundaries. Those discussions never took place. The system of ten constituencies remained and so did the requirement for parties to contest a minimum of six constituencies, each supported by 175 registered voters.
These conditions are onerous, leading to the downward trend of small parties that have been contesting elections. The figures are as follows: In 1992, 9 small parties contested, obtaining 0.03 to 2.01 percent of the votes; In 1997, 8 small parties obtaining 0.03 percent to 1.49 percent of the votes; in 2001, 6 small parties obtained 0.34 to 2.38 percent support; in 2006, 4 small parties obtained 0.76 to 8.43 percent; in 2011, 2 small parties obtained 0.26 to 10.32 percent; and in 2015, 4 small parties obtained 0.10 to 0.27 percent of the votes.
The only small party that made a significant impact was the AFC which obtained 8.43 percent in 2006 and 10.32 in 2011. It contested in coalition, APNU+AFC, in 2015. It is likely that the lower trend of small parties contesting will continue in the March 2 elections. The significance of small parties on this occasion is not what amount of votes they will capture but whether one or more together will hold the balance of power, as APNU and AFC together did in 2011.
At these elections, the seriousness of the issues raised by small parties, and their commonality, are a distinct feature and distinguish them from most of those of the past. These include constitutional reform leading to shared governance, corruption and youth. While the two large parties pay lip service to these important matters that are uppermost in the consciousness of the electorate, the latter have concluded from long experience that the large party that succeeds in the elections will ignore any plans they advocate.
The PPP has said that it approves constitutional reform but has been carrying the vacuous line that it is the people of Guyana who have to determine what changes they want. Then its presidential candidate, Dr. Irfaan Ali, resurrected the 15-year old, discredited, policy of building trust and confidence before constitutional reform can take place. The ‘building trust and confidence’ proposal was a ruse designed in 2003 to reduce pressure on the PPP from about shared governance. However, recently Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, General Secretary of the PPP, mentioned shared governance in approving terms. In the case of APNU+AFC, it has not implemented its manifesto proposals for constitutional changes leading to shared governance. A few days ago, President Granger said that if his coalition is returned to office he will strengthen the Prime Minister’s office to start the process of constitutional reform. We are getting closer to commitments by both large parties but the track record shows that waiting on them would be waiting in vain.
The two main political parties are offering the Guyanese people no respite from the pervasive and entrenched corruption which has long existed, but took off during the PPP’s terms of office and has now gripped Guyana in its deadly tentacles. The IDB has placed Guyana at the top of the list in the Caribbean of persons who have to pay a bribe to access government services. Great fears exist that our oil income will be lost to corruption. Neither the PPP/C nor APNU+AFC has advocated any measures to deal with corruption. There are no modern laws regulating the acts and omissions of public officials and no modern laws on bribery and corruption. The Integrity Commission lacks funding and investigative and prosecutorial capacity. The procurement regime has not been upgraded by the revision of its laws and the addition of greater and more effective sanctions. The current regime of inadequacy appears to suit both our large parties.