‘The winner-takes-all mentality’

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‘The central premise of the team’s approach to this exercise was that the broader context of consensus and inclusion are the underlying challenges for Guyanese citizens and impede the framing of a common vision of the country’s future. …. The ruling party … and the opposition coalition …. need to find a way to form a functioning democracy based on power-sharing rather than a “winner takes all” mentality. … There is not a vibrant and sizeable civil society … that can contribute to national reconciliation, nor is there a national media that reaches citizens beyond the capital and coastal towns. Consequently, there is no cohesive public pressure for substantive political or electoral reform stemming from the political crisis. International pressure on the two parties for better governance practices is not breaking the stalemate.’ (The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) Assessment of Guyana’. August 2021).

Perceived individual and collective self-interest rather than good sense are the usual drivers in political decision-making, so particularly in the political context of Guyana it is not surprising that after over 160 years of the problem being recognised, including about 70 years of solutions being proffered, it is still necessary to have the above observations and recommendations brought to the attention of the elites of Guyana’s two major political parties. To recap, it was in 1861 that John Stuart Mill in ‘Of nationality as connected with Representative Government’ warned of the near impossibility of establishing representative democratic government in countries with ethnic political contexts such as Guyana.

‘A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which does not exist between them and any others – which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves, or a portion of themselves, exclusively. This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various causes. Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent … But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation; pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past…Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed.

But when a people are ripe for free institutions, there is still a more vital consideration. Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of a different nationalities. Among a people without fellow feeling, … the united public opinion necessary to the working of a representative government cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another. … One section does not know what opinions or what instigations are circulating in another. The strength of none is sufficient to resist alone, and each may reasonably think that it consults its own advantage most by bidding for the favour of the government against the rest.’
Mill’s view that countries such as Guyana do not possess a sufficiently sizable united public opinion to hold governments accountable and are doomed to wallow in various forms of autocratic rule remained the conventional wisdom until about the 1950s when scholars began to seriously consider their condition. In 1965, our own Nobel Laureate, Sir Arthur Lewis, writing about the politics of West Africa, concluded that the Westminster-type political arrangement is undemocratic. The basic meaning of democracy, he argued, is that ‘all who are affected by a decision should have the chance to participate in making that decision, either directly or through chosen representatives.’ The second meaning, he claimed, is that ‘the will of the majority shall prevail.’ But in the Westminster model the winner-take-all makes all the decisions and the opposition can only criticize. The two meanings are incompatible: ‘to exclude the losing group from participation in decision making clearly violates the primary meaning of democracy’.

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Arend Lijphart, a world renowned scholar in this area, referred to Sir Arthur as the father of shared governance and claimed that while Lewis may be right in general terms, if the voters’ interest and preference are reasonably well served, as they may well be in a relatively homogeneous society where political parties alternate in government, the Westminster-type system may be said to approximate to the ‘government of the people’. However, in plural societies (societies that are sharply divided by race, ethnicity, etc): ‘… majority rule is not only undemocratic but also dangerous, because minorities that are continually denied access to power will feel excluded and discriminated against and will lose their allegiance to the regime. … In plural societies, therefore, majority rule spells majority dictatorship and civil strife rather that democracy’ (Democracies 1985).

Former president Desmond Hoyte only came to truly grasp the unique political nature of Guyana just before he died in 2002. Maybe, like me, he came to this realisation after it became clear that the 2001 constitutional reforms, that his party had instigated, were not mitigating the political bickering. I allow that the leaders before Hoyte were similarly blindsided by a political culture that to this day has not significantly evolved, although there have been sufficient disruptions of national life to suggest that much is wrong with the winner-takes-all political system. Guyana’s political culture is so perniciously self-reinforcing that it prevents the development of a united public opinion able to change it by forcing leaders to relinquish their crass ethnic self-interestedness. So far international pressure has been insufficient to make the leaders of both the PPP and PNC budge but given the importance of Guyana’s newly discovered oil resources and the dictatorial leverage the system affords in this competitive geopolitical era, this might be about to change.



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