After Raphael Trotman, Khemraj Ramjattan and Sheila Holder crossed the floor from the PNCR, PPP/C and Working People’s Alliance respectively and formed the Alliance for Change in 2005, it did not take much to convince the two larger parties to collaborate on bringing legislation to prevent a recurrence of such events. Notwithstanding their claim to have been voted to the National Assembly by constituencies that they believed could be better served by their leaving their parties but maintaining their seats in the National Assembly, others viewed their act, à la Charrandass Persaud, as villainous, arguing that the constituencies they were claiming belonged to their respective parties. Given the likely closeness of future election results, please do not be surprised if after the dust has settled, the PPP/C and PNCR collude to bring legislation to prevent MPs from voting, perhaps even speaking, against their party. Indeed, some are already trying to use the above-mentioned legislation to claim that an MP cannot vote against the party!
In my last column, I stated that after the 1997 elections agreement was reached to cut Janet Jagan’s term by 2 years, efforts immediately began to attempt to extend that period and only a few years ago, the minority PPP/C government, faced with a no-confidence motion, attempted to avoid it by resorting to the medieval apparatus of proroguing parliament. Because of their ingrained ethnic fear of the other side, the default mode in Guyanese politics is to do everything to hold on to power as long as possible and I am, therefore, not surprised by the coalition’s behaviour.
What is more interesting is how Guyana’s political system never fails to throw up surprises that by their very nature push us in an illiberal direction. A not too dissimilar concern about a no-confidence vote drove us into the 2015 elections and perhaps history needs to repeat itself for us to understand the multidimensional problematic we face. When the emotions have calmed the lesson for us should be that the margins by which parties are winning or losing government are too small and when this is added to the other aspects of our bicommunal nature productive politics and management is almost impossible and increasing illiberalism is allowed full rein.
The president and the leader of the opposition are scheduled to meet today and will address the failure of the government to resign, the legal challenges to the no-confidence vote and the elections commission’s preparedness to hold early elections. All of these issues are minefields that perhaps should be placed lower on the agenda, for they cannot be adequately resolved until the parties first attempt to address the wider problem and come to some sensible agreement as to how we intend to inclusively govern ourselves in the future.
For example, given the amount of controversy surrounding the staffing and management of the Guyana Elections Commission it is most unlikely to be the basis of a productive discourse. The latter will only occur if the regime is willing to take a greater risk of losing the next election and as indicated above, this is not in the DNA of our parties. Thus, issues such as these would be best entertained after discussions about a future form of governance that will give comfort to everyone.
The illiberal trajectory of which I speak pervades the post no-confidence vote environment wherein little consideration is given of how one could help parliamentarians to truly express their conscience on these kinds of important and controversial matters. However, there are both general and specific ways of doing so and I will give two examples.
In the last Future Notes, I argued that while an essential feature of democratic politics is that people should know how their representatives vote, the secret ballot could be used on occasions where there is a reasonable chance that one could be substantially harmed depending upon how one votes. I indicated that even in a Westminster-type political system such as South Africa, as a result of a demand for a secret no-confidence vote in relation to President Jacob Zuma, the highest constitutional court decided that the Speaker has the authority to allow a secret ballot and the Speaker did so allow.
More specifically, in countries plagued with ethnic difficulties some constitutions allow MPs to declare for and attempt to protect the interest of their ethnic groups. Northern Ireland’s political arrangement has the feature by which all MPs may, upon taking their seats in the national assembly, declare themselves to be ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’, and upon a ‘Petition of Concern’ by at least a third of the members of the assembly, a motion that a cross-community vote (which means that separated majorities of unionists or nationalists must support the issue for it to be passed) can be put to the assembly by the Speaker. In such an arrangement, ethnic concerns about a government policy are allowed to be expressed in an open and fair manner, and since it can be stymied, the government has to think very carefully before introducing policies that can be perceived as adversely affecting any ethnic group. Mr. Charrandass Persaud would not have had to bottle up his ethnic concerns for them to explode in the dramatic manner they did!
No system of government is perfect, but historically, it has been recognised that countries like Guyana throw up too many obstructions to good liberal democratic management, and luckily there are now solutions. The no-confidence motion has placed us at a crossroad, so when President Granger and Mr. Jagdeo meet today, let us hope that they have already learnt that normal politics cannot exist in Guyana and are willing and able to quickly set aside the peripherals and begin to consider a more comprehensive and productive way forward. In doing so, they have to try to politically ‘deculturalise’ themselves to find approaches that will work to bring comfort and prosperity to all our people.