Political opportunism and constitutional reform
Guyana’s main political parties will only be interested in constitutional reform to transform our ethno-political system if a sufficiently large portion of the electorate demands it. Consider the following: In free and fair elections, the PPP will obtain either the votes of the majority or of a plurality because the Indian Guyanese population is the largest single block. The PNCR will obtain the second largest number of votes because African Guyanese are the second largest block.
In the normal situation, with constitutional reform and without a coalition in the running, the PPP will win the presidency and the PNCR will win the prime ministership. The AFC, if it contests alone, will not obtain 15 percent of the votes to qualify for a share in the government. With constitutional reform, the PPP will have to share the government and the PNCR will be relegated to a junior partnership. The potential relegation of the PNCR to second place and, in these circumstances, the political demise of the AFC, are the politically opportunistic reasons why the campaign promise of constitutional reform by APNU+AFC is not being kept. The PPP, which believes that it will win a majority in 2020 or later is not interested in sharing the government at any time. In a contest in 2020 between the PPP and APNU+AFC, the outcome is uncertain, but with constitutional reform, power will be shared. One will be the senior partner and hold the presidency and one will be the junior partner and hold the prime ministership. Since neither is prepared to play a junior role, constitutional reform is unpalatable to both.
Up to 1991, Cheddi Jagan repeatedly promised that constitutional reform would be enacted to implement “shared governance,” which he sometimes referred to as the “winner does not take all system.” Whether it was PPP triumphalism or otherwise, with the passing of Cheddi Jagan, the lofty principles on constitutional reform had degenerated into a drive to maintain dominance by the period of constitutional reform in 19992000. In the general elections of 2011, the PPP lost its absolute majority but maintained a plurality and was therefore entitled to the presidency and to form a government. The PPP did not even contemplate inviting the APNU or the AFC or both to join the minority government or to work out a modus vivendi which would have involved political concessions, so that its minority government would have some kind of stability – as would occur anywhere else in the world.
The display of such shortsightedness in 2011 by the PPP might be mystifying. But that is the influence of ethnicity in politics at work. It makes rational people do crazy things. It precludes serious political concessions. If sense and statesmanship had prevailed within the PPP leadership, Donald Ramotar would have been President until next year. By incredulously expecting, in a highly charged and volatile political environment as Guyana’s, that the Opposition would be persuaded to support a minority government, the PPP and its leadership lost the opportunity to materially contribute to policy development for the oil industry and is now merely flailing on the sidelines.
Smelling blood in 2015 by virtue of the PPP’s loss in 2011 and its failure to pursue a political solution, the AFC ditched its ‘dead meat’ position, namely, that if it joined with APNU in a coalition to contest elections against the PPP, it would become dead meat. It signed the Cummingsburg Accord, joined with APNU in presenting a joint slate, and won the elections. The certainty of the Indian vote, precluded the development of a winning strategy for an electorate, weary after twenty-three years of PPP governance. The ‘dawn of a new era’ and twenty-eight years of PNC rule’ of 1992 no longer had traction. A new strategy for the times, the elimination of the ‘winner take all’ governance structure could potentially have saved the PPP. Instead the APNU+AFC proposed it and it powered them to office.
It is very likely that the same sense of triumphalism now grips APNU’s consciousness. As in the PPP, this would have already been transformed into the desire for dominance that shattered the PPP’s history of promoting a ‘political solution’ from the 1970s onwards.
Politicians are driven by the logic of ethnic politics where it exists. In Guyana, the ‘successful’ parties, the PPP and APNU, are those that follow the logic. All others have failed or are in the process, although a party dedicated to constitutional reform can make impactful inroads. This is because in conditions such as Guyana’s there are people who constantly seek out ways and means by which this ethnic logic can be ameliorated for the benefit of all by structural, constitutional compromises. Sometimes these debates and struggles go on for years, decades or even generations, while the politicians go their merry way, fighting endless battles in ethno-political warfare, with no ethnic group ever securing stable dominance over the other and with one half of the population in permanent disaffection. Where dominance prevails, leaving a large minority as a perpetual outsider, instability, disaffection, poverty, inequity or violence eventually creates governance difficulties which are resolved by authoritarian rule. A significant section of the electorate can be mobilised to seek a political, constitutional solution, which has been before the electorate for forty years.
This column is reproduced, with permission, from Ralph Ramkarran’s blog, www.conversationtree.gy