Is power sharing viable?
Stabroek News
February 28, 2002

For over a decade there has been a debate in the editorial and letter columns [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] of this newspaper as to whether the Westminster model of democracy that Guyana inherited at independence in l966 whereby the winning party (or a coalition of parties) form the government and the other party or parties form the opposition is adequate or appropriate in a society in which ethnic voting patterns have been established since l957 (an executive presidency was imposed in the l980 constitution but the winner take all aspect of the Westminster model essentially remains in place).

Referring primarily to the work of the political scientist Arend Lijphart, suggestions have been made that we should experiment with consociationalism or executive power sharing in which there is a grand coalition of the main or all the political parties who obtain a certain minimum number of seats in an election. This, its proponents have argued, will overcome the ethnic tension and lead to more political stability.

Of course since the sixties a number of proposals were put forward for a coalition between the two main parties. Nothing ever came of them. Now, perhaps encouraged by the successful temporary example of executive power sharing in South Africa under the interim constitution and the experiment with power sharing in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement supporters of power sharing in Guyana have been urging for some time that this issue be placed on the political agenda. At least one proposal for power sharing was put before the Constitution Reform Commission by the Working People's Alliance but this was not supported by either of the two main parties. The issue has since been in a kind of limbo, though ardent advocates like Dr David Hinds continue to see it as the only viable solution and seek by their advocacy to get it back on the agenda.

The objections to power sharing are well known and are listed by Lijphart himself. One obvious danger is the possibility of gridlock if the parties forming the government cannot agree on one or more issues. The ultimate effect of that gridlock would depend on whether the minority had a right of negative veto on all or some issues (there are different models of power sharing) or whether the majority in the coalition could carry the day with their votes. Of course if there was disagreement too frequently that could lead to considerable friction.

Then there is the virtual absence of a formal political opposition in the case of a grand coalition between say the PPP and the PNC. This could put an enormous responsibility on civil society, in particular the media, to in effect perform the role of the traditional opposition or watchdog to monitor the laws and policies of the government. Backbenchers in the governing parties could be given the right to speak out in parliament against laws introduced by the government as a means of creating some institutional opposition in parliament though how effective or practical that would be can only be surmised.

Then there is the danger of developing a kind of elitist politics whereby the leaders in the two main parties decide everything at the highest levels in private consultations and the result is presented to parliament or the people as a fait accompli. Perhaps one can create a senate or second house with representatives of interests like the churches, business and the unions which would have powers of review and delay in an effort to increase the level of transparency and accountability so that government spokesman could be called upon in the senate to respond to criticism of legislation.

There are other possible difficulties in the power sharing model, all of which cannot be examined here. Suppose after a while the parties in government just cannot get along together and one wants to withdraw. Clearly they would have the right to do so (the National Party in South Africa did in fact withdraw from the coalition with the African National Congress) and there would then be a de facto reversion to the old power sharing model.

The truth is that there has been no profound or detailed analysis so far in the local debate as to exactly how power sharing might work with reference to precedents like Switzerland and Belgium. The emotion propelling the debate is the perfectly valid revulsion against ethnic or tribal politics which is correctly seen as unpleasant, degrading and irrational. There can hardly be any real progress where people vote blindly for kith and kin without reference to policies and competence. Thus, critics like Dr Hinds reach out instinctively for something more dignified, more progressive and potentially more stable. It is, at the least, a noble dream.

For the debate to go further younger politicians on both sides

of the divide who had once given the matter some thought should start expressing their views again. Real work has to be done too on the knotty constitutional and procedural issues involved, with specific reference to models that exist elsewhere. Mr Lijphart's work is a good starting point though several other academics have addressed the topic. Fundamental changes in a system of government cannot be lightly undertaken. One senses, for example, that the topic now creates little or no resonance at the popular level. This is no doubt partly because the debate has tended to be a little esoteric and has not been taken to the people by its advocates in any meaningful way. The efforts by the WPA over the years to bridge the racial divide have also, of course, been a painful failure.

The only other imaginative alternative to the status quo would be the attempt to reconstitute one of the two main parties on explicitly non-ethnic grounds. That would require a quality and strength of leadership not now in evidence.

The danger with the idea of power sharing is that it can become a woolly and utopian ideal unless it is spelt out more fully and unless the difficulties are openly faced and discussed. With that reservation only, given the often grim reality of our situation, it must surely remain a valid political option which interestingly enough Mr Panday has been pushing in the clearly unacceptable situation that has arisen in Trinidad.