Governing Guyana

We have to accept the challenges that ethnically plural societies like ours pose to the British Parliamentary System we inherited, which, even though modified, still forms the framework of our governance structures. More specifically, our Parliamentary Democracy and Electoral System have been altered continuously to address local plural conditions. The problem was that the changes were too often to allow power to be retained in the hands of the few.
For instance, before Independence, our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system was changed to Proportional Representation (PR) ostensibly to allow smaller groups to gain representation in Parliament. But actually, the colonial power had succumbed to the lobbying of Burnham’s PNC and the Americans to use it as a device to remove the PPP Government.
After the 1964 elections under PR, Burnham’s PNC coalesced with one of those parties representing smaller groups – the UF – and succeeded to power, but Burnham promptly kicked his erstwhile partner to the curb to rule on his own. He introduced an Executive Presidency that gave him more powers than the monarchs of yore, because he asserted that Parliamentary Democracy with a governing Prime Minister (PM) in Parliament fielding questions from Opposition MPs was inappropriate for Guyana.
He introduced a new constitution, which was totally his concoction by having the Constituent Assembly accept no suggestions from other groups. It described the cooperative socialist ethos and teleology that he foisted on the country, but, more to the point, described in mind-numbing detail the powers he had gathered unto himself, along with the impossibility of removing him. The ruling PNC was declared as “paramount” over the government – and indeed the state.
In 2000, there were massive constitutional changes, following massive riots by the PNC geared towards empowering the Opposition, such as Parliamentary Sectoral Committees and a Parliamentary Management Committee. However, calls by the Opposition for “power sharing” continued unabated.
Two proposed methods to achieve the latter goal are consociational and centripetal power sharing, but we hear only about the former. Ironically, centripetalism has already been adopted by both the PPP and APNU/AFC, but it just has not been given its name. Consociationalists generally try to solve claims of exclusion by establishing a regime of agreed guarantees, including proportional group participation in government and minority vetoes of ethnically sensitive policies. Their solution is to replace the adversarial democracy of government and opposition with a grand coalition of majorities and minorities.
However, consociationalism presents insurmountable challenges in the real world, and in most places it was tried and broken down. For instance, where robust guarantees, including minority vetoes, are adopted, immobilism is a strong possibility, since the parties would still be competing for votes, and when in Government, would seek to score points. We see this in the present veto over the appointment of the Chancellor and Chief Justice. Total gridlock will be inevitable with wider vetoes. By contrast, centripetalists do not propose to substitute a consensual regime for majority rule, but attempt instead to create incentives, principally electoral incentives, for moderates to compromise on conflicting group claims, and to establish a regime of interethnic majority rule.
In Guyana, demographic changes since 2006 have fortuitously created built-in conditions for centripetal power sharing, which the PPP is exploiting. We are now a nation of minorities with no one group having a clear majority. Rather, we have an array of groups contending for power, which can form shifting alliances. Alternatively, rational group party leadership would accept that they have to accommodate outside groups’ demands to gain office by moderating their ethnic claims. Consociationalists aim at post-electoral grand coalitions of all parties, which are as rare as fist-sized diamonds. On the other hand, centripetalists like the PPP initiate and maintain national programmes for all groups, or aim for pre-electoral coalitions, as the APNU/PNC and AFC did in 2015. It was APNU that fatally damaged their pre-electoral centripetal coalition model by shuttering four sugar estates and alienating Indian Guyanese the AFC had brought into the coalition.