Constitutional change and society

Once again a Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC) is about to begin its work. However, it is not appreciated enough that before a constitution – which authoritatively allocates power in the state and society through institutions – can be crafted or amended, there must be prior agreement on the nature of the society to ensure the institutions authorised are appropriate to address the autochthonous challenges. The first written constitution, we should remember, was created by the American colonists after a prolonged debate captured in “The Federalist Papers”.
Guyanese political culture and structures, along with their supporting philosophy and institutions, however, were originally imposed by Britain. As such, they had not evolved organically to address the needs of the Guyanese society, but arose either out of the British experience or were constructed to serve the purposes of Imperial Britain. The premises of the political system reflected the biases of Liberalism, in which the supposedly rational individual engaged in a variety of roles and belonged to a multitude of organisations and groups whose several interests are “cross-cutting”.  The individual makes decisions based on the particular role he is playing when he confronts the given issue. In his political role as a voter, therefore, he makes a “rational” choice based on the position a given party takes on the issues before the electorate.  Even if all voters do not conform to this ideal, there are enough who do, to constitute a pool of “swing” votes for which all parties compete.
As such, while there will always be blocks of voters who vote “traditionally”, there will also always be a substantial block of “undecideds”. This situation creates a centripetal, moderating effect and the parties line up on a continuum on the issues.  Since these “swing voters” may always change their minds, the majority is always careful to be respectful to the minority.  The essential principle is <<<audi alteram partem>>> – hear the other side.  Additionally, the multiple memberships in organisations that create the crosscutting cleavages help to ensure that the party out of office still has other avenues, outside of the explicit political institutions, for ensuring that their views are considered by those in power.
The party system in an ethnically-divided society, however, traditionally operates on a different basis. In addition to the membership of political parties generally coming from different ethnic sections, individuals belong to other organisations, which instead of diffusing the ethnic cleavages, sometimes reinforce them because of their exclusive ethnic membership. Generally, the groups here live in different villages and there is very little interaction at a primary, personal level. The “broker institutions”, as one researcher labelled them, in which each group participate and which represent him in the larger society, are also generally ethnically based – -trade unions, religious worship, political parties, etc.
Party affiliation is thus not based on the party’s position on a variety of issues, but generally on just one issue: which group’s interest does the particular party purportedly represent.  Party membership is generally ascriptive – based on race/ethnicity – where individuals perceive their fate in ethnic rather than individual or class terms. However, since 2011, Guyana has become a nation of minorities and rational political parties should now be forced to tailor their programmes and appeals across the ethnic divide to create swing voters.
The PPP/C has candidly announced since 2020, when it assumed office, that it has made explicit changes in its personnel – especially with its Civic component – and its programmes, to explicitly court African and Indigenous Guyanese votes. Huge blocks of swing votes were seen in the 2023 Local Government Elections. Sadly, however, the Opposition has called the PPP “slave catchers” for this ultimately supremely democratic practice to court the widest possible cache of voters. More insidiously, it has confined its campaigning only to its base knowing that this will lead nowhere and build resentment and hostilities.
It is our position that the PPP’s assessment of the need for the widest possible mobilisation is good for its and the country’s democratic and prosperous future. The constitutional reform process must seek to institutionalise this approach.

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