The case of a national government

Stabroek News
April 20, 1999

The case for a national government or power sharing of some kind is twofold. First, the country has been so severely affected by the brain drain resulting from the diaspora that started in the fifties that it is no longer possible for any political party to provide a credible and effective government. A pooling of the talents is needed to bring together the team necessary for efficient decision-making and rapid development. Second, it has been clear since the l957 elections that the two main parties draw their support primarily from the two large ethnic groups. This results in enormous tensions in election years and the aftermath and creates a focus for ethnic insecurity which tends to be reflected through the party apparatus. The parties, whether they acknowledge it or not, become prisoners of their supporters fears and the situation is correspondingly unstable as almost every disagreement is seen through an ethnic prism.

In the Whidden lectures in l965 in Canada Sir Arthur Lewis put forward the theory, based on his experience in West Africa, that in plural societies the Westminster model or a variation thereof in which one side wins and gains control of the executive and the legislature and the other loses was not viable. He advocated a multi party model with power sharing arrangements after the elections. Was there merit in his argument and is there any hope of that happening here?

There can be no conclusive answer to the first question, namely whether power sharing in one form or another is viable as a long term constitutional arrangement. One is not aware, for example, since l965 of instances of power sharing in the twelve countries in West Africa mentioned by Sir Arthur. There have certainly been examples of power sharing in other countries as noted by Arend Lijphart in "Democracy in Plural Societies: a comparative exploration". Recently the African National Congress shared power for several years with the National Party in South Africa as a temporary measure to give security in the transition to democracy to the white minority. And in Fiji an experiment in consociational democracy is about to be undertaken. Critics have pointed to obvious problems like the lack of an opposition where there is a grand coalition, the likelihood that segmental (ethnic) divisions will be hardened not weakened, the danger of gridlock and the danger that politics will become essentially high level behind the scenes bargaining between the major players sharing power and that democracy and open government will be diminished.

Those objections are weighty and must be taken seriously.

Ultimately, though, one has to ask whether the system we have now is working and if not whether it is not worth giving another system a chance. But is either of the two main parties interested? On the face of it, Mr Donald Ramotar, the general secretary of the People's Progressive Party, may seem to have shut the door on power sharing in his presentation to the Constitution Reform Commission on Friday. This is what he had to say: " A coalition government by way of power sharing through constitutional engineering will fail because the conditions in the society do not exist to ensure its success. In any event, it will be counter productive to ethnic security, the destruction of ethnic voting patterns and to political stability. Such a form of power sharing will result in the entrenchment of ethnic political enclaves". Yet in the questioning of the PPP team that followed the presentation it became clear that their submission was by no means final or non-negotiable on other issues like the appointment of the judiciary, which their submission does not deal with. Moreover, there have been several clear statements by senior party persons over the years, in particular by the late President Cheddi Jagan, to the effect that the party did not believe in a winner take all system, which appeared to hold the door open to discussions on power sharing. So the door may not be shut.

Where does the PNC stand? It is yet to make its submission to the Constitution Reform Commission though it is likely to do so soon.

Certainly power sharing is not official party policy and the party leader has never embraced it publicly. On the other hand, senior party persons like Messrs Sherwood Lowe, James Mc Allister and Aubrey Norton have openly advocated `inclusionary government' in our letter columns and these three prominent PNC activists have made a submission to this effect to the Constituion Reform Commission. As the party that may find it hard to gain power if ethnic voting patterns are maintained the PNC would seem to have a logical interest in exploring a new form of government.

A hopeful new development is the impending completion of the National Development Strategy by Dr Kenneth King and his colleagues. This comprehensive economic and social programme, prepared by skilled Guyanese from all the parties, will provide a plan that could hopefully be adopted after debate in parliament as an agreed basis for charting the way forward. It would thus provide a logical framework on which a national government, even if for a temporary period, could be based.

If, of course, there had been a real dialogue between the two parties since the Herdmanston Accord in January l998 so many of these issues could have been explored in depth. It may be that a system of executive power sharing will not be considered viable or desirable but there may be many other mechanisms such as strengthening parliamentary committees in which the opposition plays a major role to review all legislation and devolving more power to the municipalities that can cater for the problem of ethnic security and give the opposition a real stake in the system. As it is, the task still lies ahead and the resumption of dialogue is not yet in sight. Perhaps the work of the Constitution Reform Commission and its report and the promulgation of the National Development Strategy will provide a basis for a renewed and revitalised dialogue which in the final analysis has to be the catalyst for real change.