I was going to write this week about whether the Bank of Guyana should take up the role of the Guyana Gold Board by purchasing gold from local miners. However, after reading Dr Henry Jeffrey’s inspirational column “Jubilee celebration or African fest?” I am motivated to write about power sharing in Guyana and summarize my core position on this topic.
Let us start off by outlining the ethnic logjam in which the country finds itself. The two main ethnic masses – except a relatively small percentage of independent voters – vote for their respective ethnic leaders. The party which wins the election will draw supporters from its ethnic group to form core government positions. The losing group is marginalized. Politicians, past and present, have labelled this marginalization as “ethnic cleansing” when it is clearly not so. The marginalization of the losing group is rooted in pro-ethnic voting, intra-group social networks and the dependency on political patronage for upward career mobility.
Standard economic analyses can be used to illuminate the nature and consequence of pro-ethnic voting and intra-group social networks. The result reminds me of a pernicious Nash equilibrium that comes about because the two main ethnic masses expect to be rewarded with patronage and as such cannot trust how the other side will vote on the day of secret ballot. If East Indians do not trust whether African Guyanese will split their votes (between PNC and an independent party) they will go ahead and vote PPP. The exact uncertainty bothers African Guyanese who cannot trust East Indians to split their votes between PPP and an independent party, thus they vote PNC. However, it is a situation where the masses collectively shoot themselves in the feet by voting for underdevelopment. The ethnic elites, however, whose interests are to preserve pro-ethnic voting will usually reap most of the financial rewards. Indigenous folks tend to split or randomize their votes between PPP and APNU+AFC.
Executive power-sharing (EPS) should be backed by a suitable constitution that provides the institutional foundation. EPS under the present constitution – given Presidential immunity – will likely result in a dictatorship. The PPP does not believe in liberal democracy and the PNC comes with the baggage of electoral rigging. Since neither party desires a complete overhaul of the present constitution, power sharing should proceed in gradual steps. I would like to think about it in terms of short-term and long-term steps towards development; steps, moreover, that disrupt the adverse underdevelopment trap associated with the ethnic calculus.
In the short run there could be cooperation on a few big ticket development projects. This requires both President Granger and the Leader of the Opposition claiming ownership, jointly writing up the plans, and publicly appearing in external negotiations and press conferences. Four big agendas over which they could cooperate are: (i) a comprehensive renewable energy development programme; (ii) a smart electricity grid system, (iii) completion of the high-speed internet network that was started under the PPP, and (iv) diversification of the product mix of GuySuCo. Obviously numbers (i) and (iv) are related since this corporation should be seen not only as a sugar producer, but also as an energy company. Such co-operation could serve as a system for building confidence and trust. However, if both sides cannot claim equal ownership it will not work and the underdevelopment deadlock will continue. Managing this system will require getting help from skilled personnel in conflict resolution.
A second kind of power sharing in the short term could be decentralization of government services. There is no reason why people in Essequibo, Linden and Berbice should travel to Georgetown for government services such as obtaining a passport or birth certificate. There is also scope for decentralizing the policing systems. There are however obvious natural barriers acting against decentralization given the small population and the wide scattering of the people over a large land area. This requires high unit cost for basic government services and burdens the local governance system – a form of power sharing – by restricting the capacity to tax in poor thinly populated far-removed regions.
In the long run – if there is enough confidence and trust after working together – there should be rewriting of the constitution. My PDF copy of the Guyanese constitution is 204 pages long, while a PDF of the American constitution is 19 pages. I find it more straightforward reading the constitution of US$18 trillion GDP America than that of US$3 bill GDP Guyana. The latter has a constitution comprising a hodgepodge of the American presidential and British Parliamentary systems. A choice might have to be made between the two systems. It seems as though the Guyanese constitution was written to give elites with the backing of expensive lawyers an inherent advantage in power relations. The poor masses cannot afford lawyers to decode this document if there is need.
There are some broad concepts that should be enshrined into a new Guyanese constitution. There are others, but I would like to emphasize four. First, there should be post-election alliance instead of the current pre-election alliance. This could possibly minimize the occurrence of race-baiting at election time as we saw from the 2011 election. Second, the list system has to go. The Members of Parliament should be elected directly by constituencies (not the present system where backroom arrangements decide who gets to be the regional MP in a combined list). Third, the President should be a ceremonial head. Fourth, the Prime Minister should be elected by proportional representation.
Finally, over the long run there will need to be an immigration framework to make Guyana a viable country and economy. Presently the small population means the unit cost of delivering public services to the hinterland and far-off rural areas is quite high. It also means existing businesses naturally tend towards oligopoly structure as in the case of the commercial banks and two main beverage producers. Oligopolies will always make supernormal profits, but in the case of Guyana this profit does not justify entry by new competitors because there is business space for only a few producers. The new businesses that have entered the production space often remain small by virtue of the small dispersed marketplace, which is a natural barrier to economic growth and financial development as I had written in my 2008 article (“The Missing Link…”) published in Social and Economic Studies.
While there is much economic merit in setting up an immigration system, preferably starting with the diaspora, the political calculations must not be lost. The essential idea is to engineer a system where no ethnic group could give a bunch of sub-optimal leaders a permanent electoral advantage that incentivizes bad governance, incompetence and off-the-book corruption. As we have seen, this has been extremely destabilizing and costly in the Guyanese context; the project failures and financial cost have been enormous from 1998 to 2015. If the population can be taken to a proportionality that allows for regular democratic turnover under a superior constitution, there is no need for EPS.