Democracy and power-sharing

“Democracy” has become the standard for evaluating the credentials governments across the world in modern times. Never mind we may all be a bit fuzzy on what exactly is “democracy”; we just know that we must have it. But even if we all were on the same page on the details of “democracy”, we have to appreciate that democracy, or any other type of governance structure for that matter, is merely a means to a particular end. To wit, the facilitation of a harmonious society in which each member can live the “good life”.
And this brings us to our “democracy” in Guyana. No one would deny that as opposed to the form of governance we endured under the first People’s National Congress (PNC) regime between 1968 and 1992, Guyana today is more “democratic” by many of the common indicators: freedom of the press, speech, movement, political participation, civic association etc. Much of this is due to the 21 years of People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP) rule, during which most of the repressive apparatus of the Burnhamite state were dismantled. But with the return of the PNC as the head of the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) coalition, which has been in power for over three years, is our society more harmonious, inclusive and prosperous to deliver the promised “good life”?
Even Government supporters have been expressing doubts as was demonstrated by the recently concluded Local Government Elections (LGE) in which large swathes of traditional PNC supporters chose to stay away from the polls. Some of them are once again questioning the form of our political institutions. These supporters and a number of commentators argue that political institutions and structures provide the framework and incentives through which the moral links essential for encouraging the accommodation and cooperation between societal groups. Scrutinising our “democratic” political institutions for their effectiveness in facilitating societal harmony, given our particularities, they find our Westminster-style model unable to address the challenges of our societal cleavages. For many well-documented historical, psychological and structural reasons, we are the quintessential challenging ethnically plural society, which Mills said could not be “democratic”.
Abjuring “partition” which was tried in Yugoslavia at the beginning of this century, “power sharing” has once again been suggested – including by the departing US Ambassador. This has been defined by one commentator (Sisk) as, “a system of governance in which all major segments of society are provided a permanent share of power; this system is often contrasted with Government vs Opposition systems in which ruling coalition rotate among various social groups over time.”
In addressing the problematic of institutionalising democracy in plural societies, two broad approaches are sometimes subsumed under the rubric of “power sharing”. One is “Federalism” while the other views it as sharing the executive offices of a government proportionately among the political representatives of the several groups mobilised in the society. This view, of course, conceptualises “power” as a unitary construct residing in the Executive branch of Government and implicitly contra-poses “sharing” power with a centralisation of power under majoritarian rules. This conception, of course, is reflective of our historical experiences, which saw the powers of the State always controlled by a tight little oligarchy – first centred on a colonial Governor and then our Executive presidency, especially under the two PNC-led regimes.
The PNC claimed after 2015 that its coalition with the AFC delivered a “power-sharing” regime as described above, inscribed by the Cummingsburg Accord. But with the peripheralisation of all its coalition “partners”, all this mechanism has proved since then is the PPP’s riposte to calls for “power sharing” back in 2003 – that “trust between the major parties” must be developed – was very prescient.
“Power” is a very nuanced concept and even if confined to being a “possession”, rather than inhering in relationships, the power of a state is much more diffuse than an executive possession. Power sharing, in our view, would have to include the wider picture, and would have to encompass a much wider range of institutions – both within and without the Government apparatus. And for this trust is a prerequisite.