Coalitions

The letter columns and the blogs are full of talk of coalitions between Guyana’s opposition parties, and one or two of the leaders have indicated possible leanings in this direction as well. The models for this new enthusiasm, it seems, are Trinidad, Suriname and the UK, all of which had elections recently and which have – or will have – coalition governments. The first thing to be remembered is that none of these nations is a true political model for Guyana. Contrary to popular assumption, in the twentieth century, Britain – its constituency system notwithstanding – has been no stranger to coalition governments (called National Governments at some periods). The current coalition was engineered after the poll gave the country a hung parliament, with no party winning an outright majority. The three major parties had fought the election as independent entities and it was the inconclusive result which drove them to cast around for a coalition compromise.

In Guyana’s case, of course, any coalition would have to be formed before the election, not after it, if the partners wanted to ensure that their candidate won the presidency. As things stand constitutionally, it is the party with the largest number of votes whose presidential candidate would become head of state, although it would still need more than fifty per cent of the ballots cast to control the National Assembly. No doubt the current opposition parliamentary parties in particular, do not believe that any one of them on their own could challenge the incumbents in terms of winning a plurality of votes, hence the buzz about a pre-election coalition. If the parliamentary opposition coalesced after an election where the PPP had won the most votes but not an overall majority, the best they could hope for would be the stymieing of any legislation the president’s party tabled in parliament. While it would force compromise on that party, it would not seem to be a particularly enticing primary objective for an allied opposition.

The case of Suriname is simply not relevant to us, since all governments in that country are coalitions; of necessity they have to be. It has more ethnic groups than here, and there are correspondingly more ethnically-aligned parties too. There is no political party in Suriname which can secure a majority without forming a coalition with some of the smaller ethnic parties, which is why it takes so long to form a government in Paramaribo after a general election. As it is, the wheeling and dealing is still going on there.

Then there is Trinidad. This seems much closer to us in terms of its constituent ethnic elements, if not its politics. Again, however, there are critical differences, not the least of which is T&T’s Westminster-style form of government which – republican status apart – has been retained more-or-less unmodified since independence. The battle for office, therefore, is particularly intense in marginal constituencies, an altogether different structure from PR and the party list system which obtains here. In addition, the two major ethnic groups there, the Africans and Indians, are numerically speaking very close, while politically speaking there really is a floating vote in the marginals which can decide elections, sometimes in company with members of one ethnic constituency voting for the party of another.

In this country, as hardly bears repeating, one ethnic group substantially outnumbers the other, although nowadays not to the extent that on its own it can secure an overall majority, even supposing that all its registered members did in fact cast their ballots for it. Furthermore, in another significant departure from the twin-island situation there is a substantial Amerindian population in Guyana, which if it voted as a bloc (it hasn’t done so since Stephen Campbell’s day), would hold the balance of power. However, more than any other non-Indian group the governing party has depended on this one in recent times to give it an overall majority.  Any opposition coalition, would require substantial electoral support from the indigenous people too if it were to have any hope of coming to office.

At the most basic political  level what Ms Persad-Bissessar did in Trinidad was to re-join two separate factions of what had once been a unified UNC and add to it the Tobago party. (Her landslide, as opposed to a plain win, came from her personal appeal, among other things, which attracted votes from across various divides.)  In fact it has been said that it was the split in the UNC which prevented it from coming into office in the previous election, plus the electorate’s negative reaction to then leader Basdeo Panday. The situation hardly corresponds to what obtains in Guyana, since as things stand a combination of all the current parliamentary opposition parties would not unseat the ruling party. In short, Trinidad cannot be transposed here.

The second thing which seems to be giving the talk of coalition some traction is the CADRES opinion poll. Polls at best take the political temperature at a specific point in time, and as of now we are probably more than a year away from the election. In the second place, even the best of polls whose integrity is above reproach can simply be wrong (and sometimes very wrong), as both Trinidad and the UK know well. In this particular case, as we report today, the pollster took too little account of Guyana’s demographic profile, no doubt because it is unlike what he is accustomed to elsewhere in the Caribbean where he has carried out surveys. And what those living in the ethnic fortresses here think, matters in terms of trends in a PR system. 

The other important detail about the poll is the fact that 24% of respondents fell into the ‘Don’t know/Won’t say’ category, which even CADRES conceded (and which we reported), was significant enough to alter the course of an election. The pollster therefore relied on historical trends to anticipate how this group would behave in an election, a problematic approach given that the AFC has only ever fought the 2006 general election and many of those who refused to state their party allegiance were African Guyanese. Unfamiliar with the details of Guyana’s political landscape, the pollster ventured the possibility that they could be wooed by the AFC; however, the reticence of so many may have been a reflection of the PNC’s leadership controversies, and under certain circumstances they could return to the PNC fold. Furthermore, in the last election the AFC took the largest segment of its votes from the PNCR, so if that situation were to carry over into 2011, how would a coalition of the two help them electorally? 

In brief, CADRES’ conclusion that the perspective from the opposition “can be favourable… but only if these entities form an alliance of some sort,” cannot be justified. Guyana’s politics is still about electoral arithmetic, and predominantly (although not exclusively) ethnic arithmetic of one kind or another too. It really doesn’t matter which party aligns itself with which, unless they can show where their votes are going to come from on the basis of an accurate demographic sample. Exactly what inroads the AFC or the PNC, for that matter, have made in critical geographical regions to augment the ballots they received the last time around is a question whose answer remains as murky as ever.

Finally, with both the PNC and the AFC in considerable disarray, it is a mystery how anyone can be talking about coalitions at this stage, let alone attracting ‘progressive’ elements from the PPP into such a proposed alliance as well. While everyone is saying that programmes are more important than leaders, as a first step it is critical to establish who the real leaders of the individual parties are – and this before there can be any discussion of who should lead a coalition. There can be no negotiations with parties whose internal issues remain unresolved – and that includes the PNC, where Mr Corbin seems inclined to separate the presidential candidacy from the party leadership.  There is a perception, for example, that the Opposition Leader will be unable to garner votes and could compromise the appeal of any presidential candidate who is chosen – among other things.

In the end, the leadership question in all the parties assumes greater prominence than in some countries because of the power of the presidency. While this is not a matter for the upcoming election, none of them have shown any appetite for a return at some future point to a pre-1980 prime ministerial system, which would be far more appropriate for our circumstances; the lure of power has simply overwhelmed any consideration of what is best for the country.

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