In the absence of constitutional reform democratic turnover is the best way to bring about national healing

Dear Editor,

Please allow me to respond to Mr F Skinner’s letter of September 12, 2013. Mr Skinner – who by the way is one of my favourite commentators in the letter columns – makes the point that since the AFC did not commit the mistakes to the level of the PPP and PNC, it is entitled to our support. These errors are small potatoes according to Mr Skinner. The letter, however, misses a more complex dilemma in which the AFC operates. Its problems are much deeper than the Amaila issue.

The margin of mistakes the third party is allowed to make is very thin in an ethnically divided society such as Guyana.  All the good moves and intentions of the third party can be wiped out by one big mistake or several smaller ones. Its support is very adversely responsive on the downside but not so favourably responsive on the upside.

The reason for this is the perennial dilemma in which the third party operates. The hardcore base of the PPP might want to vote for the AFC but it is not sure how the hardcore base of APNU will vote. Similarly, the hardcore base of APNU might want to vote for AFC but they are not certain how the hardcore base of the PPP will vote. Voting takes place in a secret ballot and therefore there is uncertainty with respect to how the other person will vote. They therefore vote for their respective parties, leaving out the third party most times. What I have described here is the classic prisoners’ dilemma problem to which the AFC will soon have to face up for the betterment of Guyana.  This dilemma does not only hold in Guyana. It is relevant to the liberal-conservative relationship in the US. This is why Mr Ralph Nader or Mr Ron Paul could never win an election there.

When faced with this constraint, the third party has to demonstrate leadership certainty at the top. It has to appear like it can govern. To this end, it needs internal structures to minimise large and small errors because it would be punished severely on the downside. Its leaders must be full time as part-time politicians will never be able to build up a serious third force. The leadership must be aware of the perceptions of the people, particularly the ethnic fears. The leaders must be committed to building a mass party. The third party needs a shadow cabinet and so on.

Even with these factors in place the upside gains of the third party might not be that great given the straightjacket of the prisoners’ dilemma. In the 2011 election the AFC did a remarkable thing by helping to deny the PPP a majority. APNU did the same by increasing its votes. This returned some level of democracy to Guyana. In my opinion, November 2011 is more auspicious than October 5, 1992.

With the serious constraints the AFC faces, it is unlikely to grow to become a mass party. I do not expect the AFC to lose its seven seats. But the AFC can play a bigger role for the people of Guyana. The Guyanese population has undergone structural changes. This change is enough to deny the PPP the majority permanently. With the exception of the Indigenous votes, the Guyanese population is close to Trinidad and Tobago’s. That means there is a large enough group of voters who are willing to swing to the party with the best message and the most credible leader.

However, if the third party stands by itself it does not mean it can get these voters because many of them are also facing the dilemma on the day of secret ballot. The AFC leadership would do the nation a great service by helping to form a unified opposition. They should ensure democratic turnover like there is in Trinidad and Tobago. The government changes in that country but the sky does not fall down. Indo and Afro Trinidadians live well together in a small piece of land. Mr Moses Nagamootoo, for example, could take his immense political capital and deploy such to the effort of democratic turnover.

In the absence of constitutional reform, which I greatly support (and APNU leads the way here), democratic turnover is the best way to bring about healing. No single group will say it cannot win the election because the electoral calculus is against it. Moreover, democratic turnover removes the complacency of the leaders. They will always face the uncertainty of losing an election. I am convinced this is the way to go in the absence of constitutional reform.

Yours faithfully,
Tarron Khemraj

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