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A major underlying source of instability in the Guyana electoral system is a winner-take-all character that heightens ethnic insecurities and intensifies ethnic struggle for control of state power. Under this system, the governing party is in a position of unchallenged power even when, as has occurred in recent election cycles, its margin of victory is as slim as one seat. In these conditions, a large section of the population (even possibly a majority) may go unrepresented in Parliament, reducing Parliament to a rubber stamp with little more than a veneer of a democratic opposition. The party in power has extensive access to state resources including those for election purposes. Addressing this question, the 2020 preliminary report of the Carter Center urged “Guyana’s political leaders to commit to reform the ‘winner-take-all’ election system currently in use.’
The above contains the number one priority for anyone seeking to set Guyana on a permanent democratic path to peace and prosperity. After seven decades, it must be obvious to even the most unmindful observer that Guyana’s ethnic divisions are too deep and the ethnic struggle for political power too intense for any one of the larger ethnic parties to be able to successfully manage its winner-take-all political system. The mere fact that this toxic reality has not yet led to fundamental changes is the clearest indication of its existence.
The second most important issue is the existence of a political elite that does not comprehend its context and is too ethnically/racially biased and/or interested in personal aggrandisement to care how the country is ruled.
These two issues are the major stumbling blocks to an otherwise promising future for all Guyanese. It is, therefore, puzzling that mention of the above quote is largely absent from the initial commentaries that have discussed the ERG’s recommendations. Maybe I am jumping the gun but I am tempted to conclude that the discourse is already been framed by what it is perceived will be acceptable to the two major parties while in Guyana’s kind of contexts what the ethnic parties usually want is rarely ever good for the country.
‘ERG is concerned that electoral reform processes are not reduced to a mere parliamentary show of strength (majoritarianism) such as the RoPA amendments appear headed towards. Electoral reforms need to benefit from a national consensus if they are to have the desired effect.’ This is the third most important position of the ERG, but I must restate here that ‘national consensus’ must be understood as meaning reforms that are ‘acceptable to substantially all of us’. In this context, referenda are usually majoritarian instruments unsuited for ethnically divided societies such as Guyana. To be used properly, they must be redesigned or implemented in a fashion that will result in the new rules being acceptable to ‘substantially all of us’.
Other important ERG recommendations have to do with ‘Extending the period for consideration of the RoPA amendments … Establishing a multi-stakeholder electoral reform committee where political parties do not dominate. … a. Identif(ing) the entire raft of electoral reforms needed, and supporting processes, to be completed ahead of 2025, b. Promote national dialogue, including but not limited to political parties, on the fundamental electoral reforms needed. c. Draft proposed amendments to laws and the constitution, on the basis of the national dialogue’ These are largely sound proposals and the arrangements that existed during the 2000 reform process offer a template that might avoid much of the haggling over who are legitimate stake-holders to sit on the reform committee.
It should be noted that the constitution resulting from the 2000 process brought a level of legitimacy but did not end the ethnic/political squabble because, notwithstanding the numerous committees it established, it hardly touched the important aspects of Guyana’s Westminster-type winner-takes-all system. The English political essayist and critic Walter Bagot (1826-77) said that ‘A (Westminster-type) parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people’. The British system has transitioned somewhat but this observation is still essentially true, particularly for the opposition, in Guyana where with the slimmest majority government can largely do as it pleases. The passing of the National Resource Fund Act is the latest demonstration of this fact.
The regime’s persistent lament that the opposition rigged the 2020 elections without wanting to test its own legitimacy in the courts is laughable and thus one must view the exaggerated fines and emphasis upon what happened on elections day as part of its effort to detract from what also happened before elections day and thereafter. As a result, its proposed reforms lack coherence.
With one caveat, the ERG’s position that stakeholders be allowed to ‘identify the entire raft of electoral reforms needed, and supporting processes, to be completed ahead of 2025’ is admirable. However, once a holistic conceptual framework is in place, reform can be done incrementally. There are pending election petitions, the result of which must not be preempted for they could go either way, and certain operational concerns about GECOM, its capacity to deal with elections disputes, the existing extremely bloated electoral list, etc., makes incrementalism a necessity.
The elite of the People’s National Congress is as culpable as that of the People’s Progressive Party for Guyana still being in this political mess, but it is good that the former sees value in the work of the ERG. One must hope that its vision is now more enlightened. We have had largescale reforms before and look where we are. From this standpoint, the Elections Reform Group has made a valiant initial effort but I suspect that the struggle for meaningful reforms is yet to begin.