Today I will apply to Guyana relevant lessons gleaned from the international experiences considered last week. The lessons must be considered interrelatedly and unfortunately they serve to demonstrate that perhaps only in form is the APNU+AFC a political coalition. Here I focus on the Alliance for Change (AFC), paying little attention to the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and smaller parties, for apart from wishful thinking on their part, they have long merged with the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) to become the APNU. Those parties do not have any demonstrable electoral support, there is no coalition agreement between them and there is only the occasional whimper from the WPA when public concern is raised about the government’s behaviour. But even that party has become complicit in the diminution of its sacred leadership icons and historical ideological assumptions without its being able to do much more than gesticulate. The regime does not now even care about the positive electoral ambience the WPA brought to the table. After all, Dr. David Hinds remained the lone voice, regularly contributing to maintaining a smattering of that quality and attempts are now been made to stifle even that!
The AFC is worth considering because it was a political party with a small but stable political base which did the country an historical service by helping to oust the PPP/C from government after over two decades. On occasions, such as the 2006 and 2011 elections, its support ballooned because it benefitted from alienated APNU and PPP/C supporters, but on the whole I believe it was able to tap into a growing group of Guyanese who supported its agenda, which claimed that both the PPP/C and PNCR needed to be held in check and if possible periodically ousted from government. Normally smaller coalition partners are known to be ‘punching bags for the heavyweights’, but as we saw in the previous column, the electorate tends to punish parties that bring down a coalition government in the middle of its mandate. However, to maintain their integrity, autonomy and future electability, all coalition parties must be prepared to face the electorate and be individually accountable for this is the essence of coalition arrangements. Indeed, not to be prepared to go to the polls is to concede that you do not have sufficiently important different ideological and policy positions to defend and have effectively merged
Thus, coalition partners, particularly smaller ones, must be careful not to prematurely bring down the government but at the same time take a stance that will demonstrate their independence and enhance this public profile. In this context, the recent decision of the AFC not to go independently to the local government elections is a further demonstration that it concedes that it has little for which to fight. Unique to Guyana is the constitutional requirement for a pre-election coalition to win the presidency, but if this can be an excuse for going to the national poll together, it cannot be for local government elections, where the government will not fall. If truth be told, the AFC does not now have a viable excuse for going to the national polls together as it promised to make constitutional changes to facilitate post-election coalitions, as an independent party can only benefit from such a change, has popular support for doing so and heads the coalition mandate for getting this done!
Not unrelated to the above, another lesson learnt is that usually coalition governments are rewarded or punished as a whole for their performance in office, so smaller parties must be prepared to support some of the more controversial policies of their larger partner. ‘Ensuring that the government is seen as effective and competent is crucial, and particularly so for the smaller party.’ But again the tightrope: smaller parties also ‘need to be able to demonstrate their distinct contribution to government’ which can be pointed to at the next election. The AFC has been extraordinarily loyal to the APNU to a point where I cannot think of a single important policy position that the coalition has implemented that it initiated and can proudly take to the electorate. Although the PPP/C and the APNU robbed the AFC of much of its ethnic Indian and African support during the last elections, there still existed that growing middle group of voters, but a leadership ensconced in government positions and rife with APNU-inspired political machinations will have nothing to showcase.
It gets even worse, for it was also suggested that coalitions need to have sound and properly managed coalition agreements. Knowing the negative perceptions many in the AFC harboured of it and wanting its pre-election support in 2015, the APNU was generous to the AFC in the Cummingsburg Accord. However, the elections were hardly over when the APNU began to claw back those concessions and the AFC began talking and to this day is still talking about renegotiating the agreement. Furthermore, the success of small parties is said to rest heavily upon the profile and performance of the party leaders. ‘Successful junior coalition partners have leaders with a strong public profile, a clear personal record of achievement and parties with weak or unstable leadership have fared poorly.’ The present leaders of the AFC have been unable to keep the party’s promise to renegotiate its coalition agreement, to make constitutional change, which is under its remit, and has been embroiled in what many consider one of the regime’s most egregious policy failures: the negotiations with ExxonMobil.
Of course, the negative performance of smaller parties and bad leadership need not determine whether or not they remain in government, but even where they have existed in Guyana, at the root of coalitions between political parties is that they must be individually prepared to face the electorate even in conditions of diminishing value. In an earlier coalition period, although the PNC was able to severely undermine the United Force (UF), the latter did not throw in the towel and merge. Its leaders believed that it was both ideologically and programmatically different from the PNC and so they went to the poll alone and saw the party’s seats reduced from 7 to 4 at the first rigged elections in 1968.
It would be unconscionable for anyone to believe that I am totally blaming the present leaders of the AFC for its being hijacked and hamstrung by the APNU. Humankind makes its own history, but they are constrained by their context and sometimes the outcome of that is too complex to comprehend. The AFC came on the scene in 2005 under a logical and well-meaning assumption that bringing the races visibly together in the leadership of one party would translate into national unity. Its main objective was to hold the major political parties accountable, but our abnormal constitutional position forced it into government with the APNU and it fell foul of the very conditions it was intended to solve. The AFC’s support base and leadership hold sympathies that are as ethnically divided as in the country and when this is coupled to political office and the intrigues of the APNU, the resulting complexities are not easily discerned much less managed. The result is that the AFC has now effectively united with the APNU as a single entity, while its national accountability aspirations stand in abeyance.