Following the last elections, international donors tried to lobby the government to reform the electoral system to make Members of Parliament (MPs) answerable to the people, but they concluded that significant change was doubtful under President Bharrat Jagdeo.
According to several diplomatic cables, authored by former US Ambassador to Guyana David Robinson during the immediate pre- and post-elections period, the push would build on successful efforts to get parties to commit to governance reforms. However, they eventually concluded that significant change was doubtful, saying that President Jagdeo was counting on “a tame cabinet and crippled opposition” during his second term and had even indicated the importance of helping beleaguered PNCR leader Robert Corbin retain his position as opposition leader.
The cables, made public on the WikiLeaks website, say that mission chiefs from the US, the UK, Canada, the EU, the UNDP and the World Bank met on August 15, 2006 and identified seven “critical governance reforms” they were hoping “to coax” the administration into adopting.
At the top of their agenda was reforming the electoral system to make parliament accountable to the electorate. “Without accountability of parliamentarians to the electorate, the people have no way to press for the governance reforms they want. Donors are of one mind that without changing this perverse Marxist-inspired electoral system, Guyana’s broader reform and development plan is doomed. Guyana can only move forward if its people can elect the legislature and hold it accountable for its actions or lack thereof,” Robinson wrote in a confidential August 17, 2006 cable, which dealt with the push for post-electoral reforms. Another cable, dated September 15, 2006, said “Electoral politics here is neither fair nor transparent.”
Despite advocacy for reforms by opposition parties PNCR and AFC as well as by the African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA)—which blames the ‘winner-take-all’ electoral system for political, social and economic repression—Guyana is headed into this year’s polls without the completion of constitutional reforms agreed to by all parties more than a decade ago. Moreover, the existing electoral was intended to be re-worked after the 2001 polls, for which it was crafted as a one-time only compromise by contesting parties.
The constitution provides for a system of proportional representation that ensures that the proportion of seats in parliament achieved by each party is as close as possible to the proportion of votes it received from the electorate. While this system produces a proportional house, it has been criticised for sacrificing the accountability of MPs to geographical constituencies.
According to the August 17 Robinson cable, forging a connection between the electorate and their representatives in the National Assembly was “the linchpin for Guyana’s future.” On election day, he noted, voters choose a party knowing who its candidate for President is, but they do not know whom they are choosing to represent them in the National Assemb-ly. “Party headquarters pick and choose their MPs from their party lists after finding out how many seats they won. Therefore, the members of the National Assembly are accountable only to their political parties and not to the people,” he noted.
At an ‘appreciation’ event organised in his honour last Friday, Jagdeo warned supporters to beware the “foreign” agenda, in apparent reference to the details in the recently leaked US cables. “Never allow foreign interests to become our agenda,” he said, while adding that it must be recognised that in some areas, “our values are slightly different” from those in the developed world.
The other six reforms were described as those “impacting the exercise of power.” They were: reforming the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) and the technical machinery for elections; holding local government elections that have been due since 1997; reforming the media and particularly the state-owned media through the design, agreement and implementation of media legislation; reforming the security sector, including the police and judiciary; reforming the public service; and reforming public finance mechanisms.
Robinson noted that these reforms all depended on parliamentary action and he noted that despite efforts, some had been side-tracked or stalled for over a decade and in need of reinvigoration. As a result, he said, donors agreed to coordinate their post-election congratulatory messages to highlight the critical need for renewed efforts on reform programmes, and “most importantly instituting real reforms to the electoral system.”
In the September cable, following President Jagdeo’s re-election, Robinson noted that the PPP’s success was chastened by calls for reforms, while reiterating the lack of accountability between MPs and their constituencies. “…The majority party simply rules by fiat,” he said.
He noted that the current system was good to the PPP/C, delivering a string of wins since 1992 and gutting the PNCR. “After this most recent win, Jagdeo appears positioned to control both the government and his party, effectively consolidating his power in the executive and the legislature,” he said.
Robinson added that while most observers disagreed, Jagdeo described his first term as “reformist and inclusive” and said his new agenda would simply continue the work already started. “At the same time, he emphasised the importance of helping PNCR leader Robert Corbin retain his now badly degraded role as opposition leader and dismissed suggestions that new faces across the aisle might bring energy and innovation to the political arena. A tame cabinet and crippled opposition seem integral parts of Jagdeo’s second-term game plan,” he said.
Under the circumstances, he said the donor community shared the view that Jagdeo would be tough to move toward reform on any significant level. “We have been making the rounds separately and together with our donor colleagues emphasising the need for greater political space and dialogue and the utility of an active parliament and civil society,” he said, while adding that good elections probably should not be seen as the start of a brave new Guyana, and that donors should continue to insist on benchmarks and confidence building measures as they contemplated continued assistance during Jagdeo’s second term.
In another cable, dated October 5th, 2006, Robinson reported that Jagdeo might “sidestep long-term reform.” He referred to an October 2, 2006 conversation with the president, which he said supported the view that he was not inclined to tackle extensive constitutional or other structural reforms in his second term, and this conversation seemed to support that view.
“He is a lame duck, public expectations for his performance are low, and political opposition is for now inconsequential. At the moment, he seems content to answer the daily headlines, a sad catalog of murder and abuse, and ignore a broader mandate,” Robinson said. He also referred to a conversation with the British High Com-missioner, who said that Jagdeo baulked at a UK security sector reform proposal he had requested early in 2006 because it relied heavily on planning and training rather than providing material support for street patrols.
In the light of this, Robinson suggested that Jagdeo’s “apparent bias” for quick results and hardware might have lessened his interest in a reform agenda. As a result, he added that the donor community, and particularly the British, Canadian and EU representatives, viewed the government’s remaining international debt as offering the only effective pressure on Jagdeo for constitutional reform and political inclusion. He said the donors would continue to advocate for electoral and constitutional reform, including local elections, push for a greater role for civil society and the private sector in political debate and policy making and encourage passage of the stalled broadcast bill to open the media and dislodge state control over radio. However, he added that “Attaching benchmarks or conditions to debt relief may be the only lever that gets a useful rise.”