Last week, the president and the leader of the opposition met, and contrary to what many had hoped for but what Guyana’s political legacy suggested was most improbable, they emerged from their hour-long meeting just as they went in – with only smiles! From the government side we heard that the no-confidence motion was passed but that there are questions about its legality that are before the court, and whether the government resigns must await the outcome of these proceedings. From the opposition we heard that the president and cabinet must resign at once and that government should become a kind of ‘caretaker’ administration, unable to make new policies or pass laws. And from both we heard that when elections can be held will depend upon the readiness of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) – oh yes, the same one with a chairperson and staff in which the PPP/C has claimed it has little faith! The leaders also adopted the usual public posture of calling upon their supporters not to be disruptive and alarmist, and from the pliant populace, so jaded by the perennial political bickering, there was much applause for the political maturity the leaders had demonstrated!
The PPP/C had called for the meeting but must have left it knowing that, apart from making noises to the country (its supporters I mean) and the international community about the regime being amoral and illegal, there was little it could legally and visibly do about the situation. Having failed to get the Speaker of the National Assembly to rethink and invalidate the no-confidence motion, the regime has two levers to achieve its goal of delaying and staying in government for as much of the remainder of its term of office as it wishes: the courts and GECOM. In relation to these, the end games will be the Caribbean Court of Justice and a new electoral list respectively, and many have taken this as another sign that the regime is set to remain in power post 2020 come what may!
Optimist as I am, the failure of the two parties to give even a hint that they had discussed anything substantial about working together does not deter me, for the breakdown of talks in such a forum could have been fatal, and both the PNCR and the PPP/C know about the creation and use of back channels in these circumstances. I am hoping that the leaderships of these parties are not so foolish as not to realise that what is taking place nationally, regionally and internationally in relation to Guyana must result in negative consequences if this ethnic tug-of-war continues.
But whatever the situation, it is still useful for us to ask what are the core problems that must be confronted and can a solution be found that is both equitable and democratic? I believe that there is such a path, and in attempting to find it let us for the most part forget what the coalition government promised and what it did and did not do.
Make no mistake; briefly put, the fall of communism and the introduction of democratic politics brought the PPP/C to government with a unique, even if troublesome, opportunity to harness and then tame our ethnic divide. However, at the heart of the present problem is that the post-Cheddi Jagan PPP/C government, unable to quell the disturbances on the streets between about 1997 and 2004, saw the solution in terms of its political domination of the society, which in our context meant ethnic domination and thus rather than solved exacerbated the problem. Inevitably, the visible outcomes of this project when pounced upon by the African ethnic entrepreneurs have created a general African mindset that does not want to see the PPP/C close to, much less alone in power. However, compared to those of Indian ethnicity, from whom the PPP draws its main support, the Africans are a minority, and herein lies the African dilemma that the coalition government was, on the face of it, manufactured to overcome in a constitutional manner. It has so far failed to achieve this goal because in contains two factions with conflicting visions of what the objective of keeping the PPP/C at bay actually means and how it is to be achieved.
The dominant one is mainly to be found among a substantial number of the well-placed old guards in the PNCR and the many APNU supporters who left Guyana despising the PPP and have now filtered back and are in sensitive positions with the same mindset. To this group, manifesto promises, particularly those about shared governance, were a ruse to win support for taking power and never again relinquishing it to the PPP/C.
Then there were and still are – although now severely marginalised – the ‘idealists’, found particularly around the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and some of the younger element in the PNCR, who, even in the last days before the 2015 elections, were – genuinely I believe – regaling us with visions of national unity government under the new dispensation.
We must put aside the Alliance of Change (AFC) for the moment, for in this kind of conceptualization, even outside of the coalition, it was irrelevant. It was established with an airy-fairy conception that it would hold the two larger parties to accountability with elusive notions of what this entailed and how it was to be done! At best, the AFC’s holding the parties accountable would have meant its perennially playing around with essentially a PPP/C plurality government in highly unstable political conditions.
Standing alone, the AFC’s was a majoritarian conception that under our constitution could not have served African interests. Even constitutional changes to allow for post-elections coalitions and for the president to be elected by 51% of the National Assembly or population would not have avoided its majoritarian implications, and first past the post constituency representation would have made the situation worse. It’s no wonder that the PNCR set about disabling the AFC and making it at best a surrogate.
The second problem that has us at this juncture is that APNU promised in its manifesto to act in a fashion that would keep it in a diminished position vis-à-vis the PPP/C for a long time. It promised that ‘The President should be elected by a majority of electors. … The Prime Minister shall be the person who secures the second highest votes in the presidential elections.’ In a free and fair election it is very long odds that APNU would be able to beat the PPP/C, so in effect this promise, based upon a majoritarian outlook, is unacceptable to the vast majority of its constituents as it offers to give the presidency to the PPP/C for a considerable time, and this was one of their main complaints. Therefore, in terms of constitutional change, to introduce shared governance, the position in which it now finds itself has strengthened the dominant group. What is even more surprising is that to this day I have heard nothing from the ‘idealists’ of how, if at all, this difficulty could be overcome to give sufficient comfort to all sides.
Since it is impossible to change Guyana’s ethnic political culture in a timely manner, the answer to Guyana’s ethnic problem must reside in reforming the levers of power in a modern democratic fashion, with checks and balances that will prevent socio-political domination of any sort. Next week, using practical examples, this column will again consider governance arrangements that are more appropriate to our conditions and that will conclusively and most equitably address the African political dilemma.