The single issue over which all Guyanese, and more so all opposition supporters, should unite and forcefully and immediately seek to remove is the constitutional provision that gives the presidency and its not inconsiderable trappings to the party with the largest plurality, and makes it possible for someone to become the president even if his party secures less than 20% of the votes at a general election. From a democratic standpoint, this provision cannot be defended in a bi-communal society such as ours and had it not existed, the kind of minority travesty we have today could not have occurred. Both APNU and the AFC are committed to constitutional change, APNU more radical change than the AFC, but for both the removal of the constitutional plurality principle would be appropriate.
Anyone vaguely associated with Guyanese political history knows of the amount of man hours and material the PPP has expended extolling the virtues of majority rule. However, in sheer desperation the party has now abandoned another of its historic postures in favour of constitutionalism in a manner that does nothing to solidify the democratic tradition it once worshipped. Instead, in traversing this constitutional course in the manner it has been doing, the PPP is undermining national confidence in the court by consistently appealing to it with all manner of dubious requests. Of course, the latter has not crowned itself in virtue by pandering to its newly found importance with uncustomary and controversial decisions.
Lest it be mistaken, this is not to argue that the PPP/C is an illegitimate or unconstitutional government. Democracy is majority rule rooted in a constitutional consensus and such a consensus should result from an arrangement that is representative of all or at least substantially all of us. In 2001 there was an elaborate constitutional discussion that involved representatives of the main political parties. In electoral terms, those parties, the PPP/C, PNC, etc, had the support of more than 90% of the Guyanese people. Thus, there is no question about the legitimacy of the present regime.
Furthermore, minority governments are not unusual elsewhere. Indeed, in Norway, one of our more recent benefactors, from which the PPP/C may have become aware of this approach, forming and sustaining minority governments is almost the norm! Between 1961 and 2000 twenty cabinets were formed with more than half of them being deliberately constituted as one party minority cabinets. In the US too, presidents have many a times found themselves in a position where they did not control Congress. However, these approaches are usually rooted in some fundamental majority (as in the case of the USA, where the president is elected by a majority of the population) and governments in both types of situations can only survive and/or govern effectively by making major concessions and garnering the support of other parties. The present regime is not rooted in a fundamental majority and seeks to go about its business with little reference to the opposition.
En passant, since there is still some concern about uncooperative nature of our parliamentary relations and some dispute over when parliamentary resignations are appropriate, the following paragraph on the workings of the Norwegian system, which is somewhat different from our essential Westminster model, suggests that we may be overreacting and also that in future reform efforts we need to be more specific.
“The government is not expected to resign in the event of a parliamentary defeat, unless the bill explicitly has been made the subject of a motion of confidence or no confidence. Even defeats on major legislative initiatives … need not lead to the cabinet’s resignation, and over time Norwegian governments (especially minority cabinets) have become more and more tolerant of parliamentary defeats. Interestingly, the Brundtland cabinet of the 1990s suffered parliamentary defeats with increasing regularity, while at the same time, they steadily became more, rather than less, entrenched.” (Muller. W. C & Kaare Strom (2000) “Coalition Governments in Western Europe,” Oxford University Press.)
Notwithstanding its continued reference to Presidents Forbes Burnham and Desmond Hoyte as dictators, the PPP/C will want to defend the constitutional provision on the principle of what was good for the goose is good for the gander. It is still a mystery to me why Forbes Burnham (and even more so Desmond Hoyte, as he was out of office and could have at least made more about removing this clause during the 2001 constitutional amendment process) supported it.
Detractors have argued that these men knew that they could not continue to rig the elections on the scale they were doing and that this arrangement would have allowed them to stay in government with much less support. This of course does not really provide a convincing argument when we consider that Hoyte was out of office and thus in no real position to rig elections.
A kinder assessment is that the attempt to marry the parliamentary, presidential, first-past-the-post and proportional systems unwittingly resulted in the outcome we now have. Parliamentary systems are essentially plurality arrangements while presidential systems are usually (but not always) majoritarian. In first-past-the-post parliamentary systems, a government can be formed by the party that garners the most seats even if with a minority of votes: the point is that the party must be able to control the parliament. However, presidents are usually required to gain over half of the votes cast at a general election. We must also not forget too that to this day there is only a vague recognition of the political administrative requirements of our ethnically divided society.
Whatever the reasons for the presence of the plurality clause, in our semi-presidential system, its existence is now a humbug to further democratisation and it now falls upon the entire opposition to make its removal a central focus of their immediate objectives. Of course, the PPP/C is certain to vigorously object but the removal of this clause will not only enhance the need for political parties to seek support outside what are dwindling ethnic bases; this single act also has the potential of transforming Guyana from a bi-communal into a plural society.