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—Only two ways to rule Guyana: authoritarianism or power-sharing
I concluded my last column by arguing that if, contrary to President Ali’s warnings, one jettisons the main conclusion of the USAID report ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Assessment’ that ‘The ruling party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the opposition coalition the A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) need to find a way to form a functioning democracy based on power-sharing (PS) rather than a ‘winner takes all’ mentality’, most of the remaining recommendations appear rudderless.
With a functioning power-sharing agreement that put representatives of over 80% of voters around the decision-making table, most of the important issues in the Stabroek News editorial under discourse (20/02/2022 – the editorial) relating as they are to the institutional difficulties of arriving at consensus on various socio/political issues will either vanish or become less problematical.
This because power-sharing will positively deal with the three most important political problems in Guyana: it will immediately reduce the intensity of ethnic political competition and alienation and increase political accountability. Firstly, given the absence of a united public opinion, in the winner-takes-all system the winning party can ‘steamroller’ what it pleases, but PS brings together parties representing the vast majority of the population to work by consensus. Secondly, where a stable ethnic majority exists, or politicians are allowed to manipulate elections to win and/or perpetuate a majority, the winner-takes–all system will produce an ethnic dictatorship. Even where a stable ethnic majority does not exist, given Guyana’s ethnic configuration winner-takes-all politics breathe ethnic alienation by locking out, for significant periods, a large ethnic group from executive political decision making. Thirdly, removing the almost life and death struggle for political executive power allows for a less partisan and more focused, transparent and participative decision- making process having to do with the entire range of social issues. The very context of PS will immediately change political behaviour and a change in ‘mindset’ will gradually follow.
In the early 1990s my major concern was that in the absence of a significant political opposition PS could result in dictatorial rule. However, the global political situation has changed significantly over the last thirty years: a context in which the large parties cannot easily blame each other, the activities of small hungry parties, civil society and social media – the last already have politicians complaining about too much opposition – the devolution of power to local levels that should be contained in a PS agreement, will constitute quite formidable checks to governmental overreach.
But the big question is how PS can be established. It would be good if it could be peacefully adopted but those who benefit from the existing arrangement usually resist change and power-sharing regimes are usually the immediate outcome of political struggle, and I doubt if it would be any different in Guyana. The USAID report suggests that ‘the most promising entry point for programming in Guyana’ might be to encourage dialogue around a new national development strategy (NDS) but I doubt it.
Given his influence with the Cheddi Jagan government, President Jimmy Carter initiated the NDS process, perhaps in the hope that the political trust and momentum that would have resulted would lead to greater political cooperation and a form of power-sharing. The problem was that there was politically associated conflict throughout the period of the first PPP/C government and much beyond. Although the period of constitutional reform led to a hiatus, political conflict resumed largely because the winner-takes-all system remained in place.
Thus, seemingly in disgust in 2004, Jimmy Carter left Guyana claiming that, ‘Jagdeo is an intelligent and capable leader, but he takes full advantage of the ancient “winner take all” system in Guyana. Following my meeting with him, I was very doubtful that his political party (the PPP) would commence new dialogue with the PNC, be willing to make any substantive moves to implement the National Development Strategy, share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from a party list on a proportional basis.’
The USAID report noted that ‘Guyana will continue to face unstable socio-cultural and governance conditions until ethnic inclusion in the decision-making process is institutionalized.’ There are only are only two ways to successfully rule ethnically divided countries like Guyana: by forms of authoritarianism or democratically by power-sharing regimes. The PPP is well aware of this and with the death of Cheddi Jagan and the resignation of Janet Jagan in 1999, it adopted a form of authoritarianism – the establishment of ethnic dominance that is in full view every single day (‘The Janet Jagan effect’, ‘Political and ethnic dominance, unsustainable, and dangerous’, ‘The nature and consequences of ethnic dominance’ and ‘The furtive establishment of political dominance’ – Future notes SN: 27/03/2013 to 17/04/2013).
The form of PS Guyana requires must result from a national discourse but also demands a deep understanding of, the vicissitudes of this kind of arrangement the local situation and a willingness to do right by Guyana. President Ali, you and your party need to cease self-interestedly blaming and claiming that it is people who need to change; join hands and positively change what is changeable in a timely manner – the political system.