Electoral Reform: gilding the lily

No Guyanese would deny that our politics are too overheated. This has been explained as being due to our ethnically fractured society that has spawned ethnically based political parties. According to Donald Horowitz, who authored the seminal “Ethic Groups in Conflict”, “An ethnically based party derives its support overwhelmingly from an identifiable ethnic group (or cluster of ethnic groups) and serves the interests of that group”. In Guyana, since the formation of the PNC by Forbes Burnham in 1957 following his splitting of the unified nationalist PPP, Guyanese politics has been dominated by the ethnically based PPP and PNC.
Guyana is not unique in its brand of politics and in fact ethnic politics now dominate even the developed democracies such as the US and UK, that were touted as having transcended such politics by having a large pool of “swing votes” that voted according to their stance on issues rather than on ascriptive factors like ethnicity or race. As such, from the seventies there has been a welter of proposals for addressing the “subversion” of the democratic spirit with elected government pandering primarily to its ethnic constituents.
One of the major proposals was for constitutional change to introduce “power sharing” by parties garnering a defined minimum percentage of votes at national elections. One popular version was “consociationalism” involving a “grand coalition” and veto power by minority parties on issues affecting their interests. But starting with the failure of an early applicattion of the mechanism in Lebanon, the construct has led to either governmental gridlock or being vitiated by peripheralizing smaller parties in the coalition. We saw the latter played out in Guyana by the dominant PNC party towards its coalition partners after 2015.
Another approach that has been tried is “federalism” or “deep decentralization” of government structures so as to dissipate conflict to capture an all powerful center. This has worked to some extent in those nations like Nigeria where ethnic groups are dominant in separate sections of the country and obtain a certain amount of autonomy over their affairs at the state/provincial level. However, in most instances, the larger states appear impelled by the “iron law of oligarchy” to maneuver and control power on their own.
The third approach, which has been tried alone or in combination with the above innovations is “electoral reform”. Guyana was an early guinea pig in this experiment when the departing British colonial power introduced “proportional representation” to replace the extant First Past the Post (FPTP) constituency system. It’s claimed virtue was that it would present a more representative legislative and Executive body because the latter would be directly proportional to the votes cast. Minority groups would easier garner representation at the “table”. But as we have seen, this has not worked in Guyana even after we introduced a ‘hybrid” PR and constituency system in the slew of the constitutional 2000. There are now calls for further tinkering with this hybrid system.
Another change in electoral rules was intended to “moderate” the rhetoric and activities of the ethnically based parties – even when one of them had enough support from its core constituency to deliver a majority and capture the government. One device is the “Alternative Vote” (AV). This asks the voters to rank order the candidates: if a candidate receives an absolute majority of first preferences, he or she is elected; if not, the weakest candidate is eliminated and the ballots with that candidate as first preference are redistributed according to second preferences; this process continues until one of the candidates has reached a majority of votes. Moderate candidates are therefore favoured.
But because of demographic changes in our country, no party can agglomerate enough votes from its core constituency to win on its own – a complete reversal from the situation when the PPP’s Indian Guyanese base gave them that option. As such, since 2011, elections have shown that if parties moderate their rhetoric and actions they can win the government without the need for electoral tinkering.