Not for the first time, but probably more ominous than before, a small party in the coalition government is calling for its decision-making to be both collective and structured. It brings to the fore an analysis I published in the newspaper in 2015, six months into the coalition government, in which I drew two conclusions: (i) that most of the expected structures, procedures and practices that are common to coalition governance worldwide are absent or undeveloped in the APNU+AFC alliance; and (ii) the coalition is developing a single-party governing mentality (SN, Nov 19, 2015). The following Sunday’s SN pursued the matter through an interview with AFC’s Khemraj Ramjattan, who asserted that all was well with the decision-making in the coalition’s hierarchy and no need therefore existed to activate the dispute resolution mechanism, as agreed to in the Cummingsburg Accord.
Signs, however, have emerged since then that unilateralism within the multi-party entity was producing periodic strain. That the seams remained intact could be explained by, as I suggested in the 2015 letter, “the personal chemistry or friendships among the main leaders and ministers across party lines; the consequential high trust among parties; the similarities of ideology and policy outlooks of the parties; and the strong desire that the coalition must stay together in the fight against a powerful political opposition”.
Latest events, however, have shown that good coalition politics requires more than good chemistry and a common enemy. It demands, as now hits home, good decision-making structures and processes. APNU should respond to these calls positively and robustly. The political dividends from a well-functioning multi-party alliance with diverse and separate voting blocs are starkly obvious. That said, APNU will have to deploy greater political skills devoid of any tone deafness.
So, what are some of the decision-making structures and processes common to coalition governments that the APNU+AFC can adopt? I had mentioned three possibilities in my 2015 letter: (i) a strong cabinet committee system, with each committee composed of ministers and senior leaders from the participating parties. For one, an effective cabinet committee system prevents the destabilizing silo effect, whereby particular portfolios become the sole and guarded preserve of one minister and his party; (ii) a system of so-called watchdog junior or associate ministers, whereby in key, if not all, portfolios, a junior minister is appointed from a party different from that of the senior minister. The presence of junior appointees in the boardrooms of ministries allows for prompt communication of their party’s views and ensures parties can access information and documents first-hand; and (iii) rules and principles on decision-making and communication, including good-faith and no-surprise rules (to set the dividing line between decisions that could be taken unilaterally and those that require consultations); rules on handling agree-to-disagree situations (can a party, for example, criticise a decision publicly?); and veto powers to delay or block decisions that any party considers adverse to its core values or interests.
A silver lining nonetheless hovers over the present dilemma. The pendulum on the coalition-oneness/party-distinctiveness spectrum will shift towards distinctiveness. The more assertive and distinctive each coalition partner is (while maintaining group stability and coordination), the more likely it can maintain its block of core supporters. Or put differently, the more fused the parties, the less likely supporters of each can relate to it. In the Guyana context, where voter cross-over between the AFC and APNU is not a bankable assumption, party indistinctiveness (or too much mutual resemblance) can have fatal electoral consequences.