Our politics is ‘deformed’ but this is not a constitutional problem

Dear Editor,

Lincoln Lewis writes: “Henry Jeffrey and Clement Rohee voted for the amendments in the constitution that emanated from the 1999 Constitutional Reform Commission and I shall not allow any one of the two to mislead the society”.  Among the amendments from 2001 was one pivotal one: Limiting the president to two terms. Living in America I have come to like this amendment and support it. Unfortunately, this matter is now heading for the CCJ.

However, there were other pivotal issues that should have been dealt with in the same package of amendments in 2001.  Firstly, a coalition of parties should take place after elections, not before. It should be done of the parties’ own free will, not under high-pressure pre-election conditions as was the recent APNU+AFC coalition.

Secondly, the leader of the party that wins the plurality is allowed to become president. Donald Ramotar was such a president, but he did not control the majority in the parliament, and his government came to an abbreviated end after only 3 years. The circumstances under which Donald Ramotar was sworn into office can only be deemed a grave constitutional malpractice. It is a gaping flaw in the constitution.

These two items should be addressed.

On another substantive issue, Mr Lewis writes: “… where a society is structured in a manner that for ethnic reasons, people largely only listen to their own leaders, a ‘united public opinion’ necessary for holding government accountable will not exist, and free and objective national institutions are next to impossible.  He goes on to refer to “… the enduring structural deformity… in Guyana of two large ethnic groups which, for the most part, adhere to the political dictates of their self-interested communal leaders”.

Mr Lewis is talking about the excessively high rates of racial voting and the problems this political culture poses to the evolution of a normal democracy and a stable society. Our politics is indeed ‘deformed’, and our society has serious “structural deformities”. The problem, however is not a constitutional one. It has everything to do with the existence of ethnic parties which in turn produces excessively high rates of racial voting; all of these things weaken our democracy.

Addressing this problem, Prof David Hinds some years ago developed a school of thought that called for “shared governance”. He was talking of consociational democracy which Suriname has. But the power centres in Guyana, the PPP and PNC, paid him no mind.

How do we get out of these deformed politics? These are the choices:

(1) Go the Surinamese way with ethnic parties and ethnic voting; post-election coalitions; and seats apportioned according to the size of the ethnic bloc of votes.

(2) Go the Guyanese way with ethnic parties and ethnic voting, but officially deny both facts.

(3) Ban ethnic parties from operating and hope the PPP and PNC see the wisdom of transforming themselves into genuine multi-racial parties.

I support the third choice. Modern democracies and the existence of ethnic parties are not compatible. Genuine multi-racial parties will encourage cross-racial voting. A large pool of ‘issues’ voters is essential for a stable democracy.

Most constitutions are partly written, partly unwritten. Constitutions cannot force the parties to become multi-racial. Parties have to do that for themselves. The PNC was in the wilderness for 23 years. It could not ever win an election based on the African bloc of votes. So you would think it would have reinvented itself and made itself attractive to win over Indian votes. It didn’t happen. The PNC got back into power doing the next best thing ‒ remaining purely an African ethnic party, but doing a ‘fusion’ thing, ie a merger with the AFC.

This leaves Guyanese politics unchanged in 60 years. And, that’s what Lewis and Jeffrey are arguing about. Constitution Reform will do little by way of addressing the specific problem of excessive racial voting which Mr Lewis calls a “structural deformity”.

I have called for the PPP to elect an African-Guyanese leader, and the PNC an Indian-Guyanese. This shall be the catalyst to help change the perceptions of these parties. Small percentages of both Africans and Indians will begin to see both the PPP and PNC differently. They will begin to attract cross-racial support. It will be the beginning of change, of the transformation of our politics.

Yours faithfully,
Mike Persaud

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