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I was extremely surprised that someone who claimed to ‘have been making power sharing proposals since the late 1980’s’ could advance such a simplistic view of what is at stake as Ravi Dev did in a recent article in Stabroek News (‘Either party could win elections here by moderating their claims and actions.’ SN: 26/06/2022). This forces one back to basics to try again to explain the major difficulties power-sharing is seeking to address. Ravi said a lot of other odd things that will not be considered here but I need to comment on what he – and many of those who oppose sharing power especially when their side is in office – perceives as the problem of ‘adaptability’.
He tells us that, ‘Those who wish to engender social changes have to start from where we are – not where we ought to be.’ This statement might be self-evident but it does not fulfill the purpose he wishes it to serve. He is trying to persuade us that since ‘Executive power sharing has been a non-starter from the 1960s by whichever party is in government’, we should we weary of pursuing it and in the process has even conceptualized the APNU+AFC coalition as a legitimate power-sharing regime! If peace, security and prosperity rest upon Guyana having a power-sharing government, what the parties want are challenges or aids to be overcome or utilised: their wishes should not be the determinant of what ‘ought’ to prioritise. Also, at various points in their history, both parties have accepted forms of power-sharing: Forbes Burnham during the independence negotiations, Cheddi Jagan once he realised that the West was irrevocably opposed to him, Desmond Hoyte in 2002, APNU+AFC in its manifesto and Aubrey Norton appears sympathetic. Only the PPP has a hard stance against power-sharing and that arose with Janet Jagan once Cheddi was off the scene.
All the above commitments might have been window dressing, but the reason the leaderships did not hold to the power-sharing idea is probably partly also because, like Ravi Dev, most of them had a quite narrow view of why it was necessary. If one has a stable ethnic majority base or a significant minority ethnic base but in coalition with a small party could win government, then sharing power may appear unnecessary if the goal is merely to take government. This is particularly so if one believes, as most of the leaders did and many still do, that with good politics, moral suasion or even coercion, one will be able to win over, get opposition politicians to moderate their views, or make submissive sufficient of the other ethnicities to rule successfully.
For example, Dev tells us that with the changing demographics, “The African/Mixed Guyanese populace had now more than matched the Indian Guyanese to resolve the African Security Dilemma (i.e. of not theoretically being able to win government) … If our parties act rationally, … either could win elections here if they moderate their claims and actions. (and) … any government elected in Guyana by the present demographics will be a ‘power sharing one.” Unfortunately, it is not that simple!
I voted for the Coalition in 2015 because it promised an end to the winner-takes-all system and share government and I have persistently criticised it for not fulfilling its promise. But Dev is saying that elected by ‘the present demographics,’ the Coalition was a legitimate shared governance regime notwithstanding it locked out the representatives of the largest ethnic group – some 40% of the population – from the executive decision making process and thus was able to unilaterally sack some 7,000 sugar workers at Christmas time and by the end of its rule ethnic relations was worse than when it arrived!
From his stance, Ravi Dev does not understand that shared governance is not focused upon majority rule: is intended to bring timely, peaceful, effective, democratic governance’ and that this will not arrive in a competitive electoral winner-takes-all context that locks the representatives of a significant minority out of government. To allow him to better appreciate this position there are many formulations of this problem, but I like Scott Orr’s for it’s a clear and succinct outline (Orr, Scott, The Theory and Practice of Ethnic Politics: How What We Know about Ethnic Identity Can Make Democratic Theory Better Paper. Annual meeting APSA Aug 2007. I itemized):
It is not possible for any state to sensibly modernise if a sufficiently large group is alienated and disgruntled.
In competitive politics leaders sell stories for votes in the hope that the leader with the best story will garner the most votes.
In such a competitive environment politicians of all kinds are opportunistic.
But the stories told by all leaders must be sufficiently realistic as they relate to the contest and the interests of their constituencies.
In all multiethnic societies sufficient differences exist for racial perceptions to develop.
Where a racial group is small, the stories its leaders tell to gain support, though racially biased, must be politically sensible.
If a racial group is sufficiently agitated and of significant numbers the traditional parties will have to accommodate it in the ruling circles.
As the group becomes larger the story its leaders tells become more radical.
The group becomes a political party which can no long be accommodated within existing parties but only side by side with them.
To the extent that the constitutional arrangements ignore this development, tension, alienation, disturbances and underdevelopment result.
There is little point in blaming the community leaders for in the competitive political environment their stories are fit and do win them maximum support.
There is little point in pleading right-doing for with similar facts the opposite story can also be told.
Nowhere has this story not played out and it’s a mistake to blame the outcome on anyone.
Power sharing becomes inevitable because of the logic of political cleavage in competitive democracies.
For some of the reasons identified by Orr, in 1861 John Stuart Mill conceptualized that representative democratic governance was impossible in countries like Guyana, and this remained the position until the late 1950s, when scholars began to deal seriously with the issue. Noble Laureate Sir. Arthur Lewis, considered the father of shared governance regimes, in his ‘Politics in West Africa’ claimed that, ‘The most important requirement of democracy is that citizens have the opportunity to participate, directly or indirectly, in decision-making. This meaning of democracy is violated if significant minorities are excluded from the decision-making process for extended periods of time.’ As in the United States of America and elsewhere, majority rule is only one important element of state design.
Bearing in mind the need to have both ethnic groups at the decision-making table in largely bi-communal societies, how power-sharing is constructed will dependent upon local circumstances. Unlike the dysfunctional political system we have existed in for the last 70 years, in our context, power sharing is intended to establish an effectively functioning democratic state.