The AFC declared on Monday last that it would be contesting the November 12 local government elections on its own. It could be that in the discussions between the parties the AFC put forward for the local government elections the same formula agreed in the Cummingsburg Accord, signed by the parties on February 14, 2015. Under that formula, the AFC got 40 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and of ministries. Far higher than its showing in the two previous elections, this percentage was necessary for APNU to entice the AFC, because a coalition was necessary to defeat the PPP. The apportionment was retained for the last local government elections but it is clear that APNU has now likely proposed a smaller proportion for the AFC, which the latter has clearly refused to accept.
The failure to agree now hints at a likely similar failure in 2020 as APNU exercises dominance. Whether the coalition survives beyond 2020 or not, Minister Khemraj Ramjattan’s prediction that the AFC would be “dead meat” if it coalesces with APNU may still be realised. But both parties tried to put a brave face on the disagreement. The AFC’s statement said soothingly that the “…decision…does not, in any way, change the AFC’s position on coalition politics at the national level.” Mr. Trotman, displaying relief, said “the AFC was not rejected by APNU.” Reflecting these sentiments, President Granger said that both the AFC and APNU remain committed to coalition politics. But APNU has made a serious mistake in seeking to marginalise the AFC. It was the AFC that helped the coalition to clinch victory in 2015. If it demonstrates continuing resilience, it will be needed in 2020.
AFC’s public statements show that it welcomed the opportunity to test its electoral strength, although this could have been bravado, as it could hardly say otherwise. In any event, while local government elections is not the most accurate test because voter turnout is usually low, at just over 30 percent, there would be some indication as to whether the AFC would be capable of assisting APNU in gaining a majority in 2020 or if a coalition would fall short.
Formal coalition politics have now been tried twice in Guyana – between the PNC and UF in 1964 and between APNU and AFC in 2015. The 1964 PNC-UF coalition failed by the 1968 elections, because it obstructed the PNC’s ability to dominate. After two elections, with only 5 seats in 2006 and 7 seats in 2011, the AFC coalesced with APNU in 2015 to break the 23-year rule of the PPP/C. However, the AFC has not, or could not, live up to its promise to break the stranglehold of ethnic politics and dominance. Its coalition with APNU, which many had felt was a promising start to the AFC’s agenda, turned out to be a disappointing subservience, resulting in the same governance systems that bred corruption and other evils in the past. The AFC might be vocal in private, we don’t know, but the ethno-political divisions are roaring forward into the oil economy. The Civic part of the coalition with the PPP in 1992 dwindled and the coalition eventually suffered the same fate, for the same reason.
The travails of the AFC do not mean that third party politics in Guyana is dead. There is a growing middle-class and youth population, including many formerly sympathetic to the AFC, and some supporters and former supporters of the main parties that have no stomach for the ethnic politics that have defined our modern political existence. The groups that were close to the AFC had bought in to its promise to end ethnic politics, even as it entered into a coalition with APNU, giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt. They are now satisfied that, however good the intentions of the AFC may have been, it has been unable to influence the APNU to pursue the constitutional reforms that it promised in 2015 which would have had a major impact on ethnic politics. And in relation to governance in its broad sense, there has been no change or improvement from the past. A different style has not led to a different substance or outcome.
Guyana needs a third party that will not join either of the major parties in a coalition, unless it wins a majority or plurality, because the inevitable result is that it will be entrapped into ethnic politics. The main parties reflect the interests of our main ethnic groups. If either alters this reflective characteristic, it will lose the support of its ethnic base, and this neither party can afford. A third party, however, if it gains sufficient support, can broker a coalition between the two main parties, or support the party which obtains a plurality in return for promoting the alteration of the constitution to engender the necessity for multi-ethnic politics and multi-party, collaborative, governance.
The starting point for discourse can be APNU+AFC’s manifesto promises at the 2015 elections for constitutional reform, which are: separate presidential elections, the candidate with the second highest votes becoming the prime minister and each party obtaining at least 15 percent of the votes having a place in the government proportionate to its support.