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As stated in previous articles on this subject, coalitions exist where contesting political parties form partnerships with the primary aim of winning government. Coalitions are commonplace and have been successful in every region of the world, but particularly in places where there are ethnic, geographic, religious and other schisms. Generally, coalition formation and longevity are conditioned by ideological, socio-structural, institutional, legal and other factors. Guyanese politics remains highly ethnicised between two large minority ethnic groups of Indian and African descent who comprise about 80% of the population. In this article I will highlight a few aspects of the historical outline already presented to indicate how the above mentioned factors could shape the coalition process in Guyana.
Some believe that where possible the nature of coalition formation is best determined during the process of constitution making, which is usually expected to be broadly participatory with outcomes that are substantially endorsed. Guyana’s present constitution, which was widely endorsed during the 2001 constitutional reform process, contains some quite interesting features, that has not only shaped the coalition reform process but suggests that constitutional reforms should be based on an holistic vision and not ad hoc negotiations.
Coalitions are usually post-elections arrangements, such as the one in 1964 between the Peoples National Congress (PNC) and the United Force (UF). However, the existing constitutional rules limit the possibility of such coalitions by including a plurality principle that automatically gives the presidency and government to the party that gains the largest number of votes at the national elections. Thus, for parties to win government they must present themselves to the electorate as a single entity. This law restricts the personnel and programmatic choices given to the electorate by forcing the collating parties to present one manifesto and to form a government essentially from its parliamentary list rather than parties being able to choose partners after assessing their quantitative and qualitative performances during the electoral process. The situation becomes even more disadvantageous when coupled to Guyana’s ‘closed list’ proportional representation system, which gives the electorate little choice about who actually will become members of parliament.
Theory suggests that parties adhering to similar ideologies should find it relatively less problematical to negotiate and maintain coalitions. However, in Guyana, personal ambitions coupled with ethnic alliances and geopolitics have worked against this general principle. The primary purpose for forming coalitions is to win political power, and the 1950s attempt by Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham to form the PPP was stymied by personal ambitions rooted in perceptions of ethnic power. This was also a factor during the pre-independence constitutional discourses when the PPP refused the co-equal power sharing proposal the British placed on the table. Much later, a similar proposal contained in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended the decade long ethnic civil war in Northern Ireland and was defined by former US president Bill Clinton as ‘a work of surpassing genius’!
Jagan’s ideological commitment was conditioned but not eliminated by his ethnic context. For example, notwithstanding his being battered by international capital, after the 1964 elections, when he realised he would have to leave office, Cheddi wrote to Forbes Burnham suggesting that they form a coalition based upon a programme committed to democracy, socialism and non-alignment! It appears to me that even at that stage, Jagan’s coalition proposal of his becoming the premier and Burnham the deputy, was less generous than that which was proposed by the British, and also suggests that Jagan may not have adequately grasped his national and international contexts, but his commitment to socialist transformation is not in doubt.
Similarly, the PNC/UF coalition came to government with Jagan’s experience as a potent lesson. However, rather than collating with the PPP, keeping it in opposition, because it was perceived as being a communist threat, as he tried to placate international capital by travelling a more moderate socialist path, was an important aspect of Forbes Burnhams’ strategy. But some initial success led to his radicalization, and by 1976, Burnham was proclaiming that the PNC was Marxist/Leninist. Of course, international capital was wise to his game and by the time of his death in 1985, it was prepared to ‘put both Jagan and Burnham in a basket and sink them’!
People still speak loosely of the PPP being a communist’s party, but when they do so they are usually referencing its perceived autocratic nature rather than its goals. A communist or socialist party seeking a classless society or anything close to that simply does not now exist in Guyana. The social and economic policies of all the political parties are all firmly ideologically set in the liberal capitalist tradition and apart from the ethnic alliances of the two main parties – the elephant in the room – party political operatives mainly challenge the moral and technical competencies of the other party.
Given this ideological coherence coalitions should not be too difficult to form since a reduction of the current ethnic dissonance requires a sensibly constructed coalition government. Unfortunately, personal and ethnic interests are still prioritised and the deadly dynamics that develop when two ethnic groups comprising about 80% of the population compete for political power are still not properly appreciated!