Guyana at the crossroads

“No-confidence motions” are an integral aspect of parliamentary democracy, since it tests the legitimacy of the government by ensuring they have majority support in the Assembly. It was entrenched in our Constitution in Article 106 (6) and (7). But to hear representatives of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Alliance For Change (AFC), including the Prime Minister, tell it, it is tantamount to an illegitimate overthrow of the Government. But as the courts deal with the rearguard action by the PNC/AFC combine to hold on to power, we need to grapple with the fundamental contradictions of our political system that sustain their actions.
Way back in 1963, the Secretary of the State for the Colonies stated the problem concisely, after the leaders of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP); PNC and United Force (UF) could not reach agreement on a way forward on constitutional measures after ethnic violence had wracked the country:
“…the Premier (Dr Jagan) told me that if the British troops were withdrawn, the situation would get completely out of control. The root of the trouble lies entirely in the development of party politics along racial lines….Both parties (PPP and PNC) have, for their political ends, fanned the racial emotions of their followers, with the result that each has come to be regarded as the champion of one race and the enemy of the other.
“The Africans accuse the Government party of governing in the interests only of the Indians, and demand a share in political decisions. On the other side, the Indians accuse the Police, which is mainly African, of partiality towards the Africans and demand the creation of a separate defence force, recruited more extensively from the Indian community, to counterbalance the Police.”
In its proposals, the British pointed out that there was the need, in general, “to protect minorities” and in particular, to address “the racial nature of the problem”. For the latter problem, “the Government should endeavour to rule with the general consent of the population … (and a new armed force) …should be constituted before Independence by the Governor, who would endeavour to ensure that recruits were not drawn predominantly from any one racial group.”
The British recognised that under present conditions, neither the PPP or PNC would be able “to increase appreciably its following among the other racial groups”. They then submitted, “…it must be our deliberate aim to stimulate a radical change in the present pattern of racial alignments. It was therefore my duty to choose the electoral system which would be most likely to encourage inter-party coalitions and multi-racial groupings”. Finally, they concluded, “proportional representation would be likely to result in the formation of a coalition government of parties supported by different races, and that this would go some way towards reducing the present tension.”
Sadly, while the British had a very good diagnosis of what ailed Guyana, their prescription of “proportional representation” alone was inadequate to fulfil the stated goals. The proposals were fatally flawed because of the British’s prior agreement with the Americans to remove Dr Jagan and the PPP from office. There were no structural changes that went to the nature of the conflict – PR, on its own, was simply a device to allow the PNC and the UF to coalesce and elbow out the PPP. As a consequence of the “Mexican stand-off” that has existed over the last half century, Guyanese politics has become so divisive that today the country teeters on the precipice of becoming a failed state.
In terms of its passage towards democracy, Guyana has now gone backwards by every objective standard, after the gains after 1992 under the PPP regime, which replaced the PNC 28-year dictatorship. The PPP, under President Bharrat Jagdeo, for instance, had worked to eliminate the US$2.1 billion debt that had crippled the economy and returned sustained growth. The refusal of the PNC/AFC coalition to adhere to democratic norms puts Guyana at risk of sliding back into anarchy and poverty.
All Guyanese must practise militant democracy to prevent this possibility, but also insist that going forward our democratic institutions are inclusive of all groups.