What constitutes a democracy?
May 27, 2004
Guyana has a freely and fairly elected government. It has free media, freedom of movement and assembly, a functioning (though not an efficient) court system, property rights protected by the constitution and freedom of religion. By the usual criteria there can be no doubt that it is an open, democratic society. The argument that has been raised for some time, though, is that because there are well established ethnic voting patterns and the present government is elected primarily by Indian voters that changes the equation and that the Westminster winner-take-all model (we have not, of course, had the pure Westminster parliamentary model since 1980 when a Presidency was engrafted as a result of a rigged referendum) is no longer appropriate and should be replaced by a more inclusive form of governance. It is also frequently contended that there should be widespread consultation with the opposition and other interest groups, democracy is about more than winning elections as it is sometimes expressed.
Thus, it is argued, despite having the normal trappings of a democracy what we have now is not an adequate system as it excludes a substantial minority from power. But this raises a number of subsidiary questions. In the first place, in all democracies a substantial minority is excluded from government, sometimes for several consecutive terms of office. Then, it might be asked, are ethnic voting patterns inevitable and unchanging? Might the fault not be in the parties that now exist and might it not be possible for a reconstructed or a new, dynamic party to break through ethnic boundaries and gain a cross-section of the vote based on its policies? Peter d'Aguiar's United Force in the sixties was a step in that direction though the evidence since then has not been encouraging and other new parties have failed miserably. Then, it is said, the PNC's current advocacy of executive power sharing is opportunistic. Having stolen the elections from 1968 to 1985 and having resisted approaches during that time for a coalition it has now, after being out of power for three elections, decided that the system of proportional representation it had supported in the sixties is no longer adequate.
There is much to be said for these arguments. It is conceivable that a revitalised and restructured PNC with some new faces and more vibrant policies could cross ethnic boundaries and win an election. The late Mr Desmond Hoyte's move to bring in younger people like Raphael Trotman and Debbie Backer was a positive step and so was the Reform initiative, though many have concluded that the latter has delivered much less than was promised and was a bitter disappointment. The new leader, Mr Robert Corbin, has also shown some flexibility. However, the main thrust of the party now has been for powe - sharing and some time ago it submitted a formal proposal to the PPP/C outlining a model for executive power sharing. The PPP's response was that there has to be a higher level of trust between the parties before that becomes feasible and that there are other forms of more inclusive governance short of executive power sharing, some of which have already been agreed to.
It is possible to dismiss the proposal for power- sharing as an opportunistic ploy. It is also true that power-sharing failed in Fiji and has not worked in Northern Ireland. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the ethnic tensions that have bedevilled Guyana's development and progress for so long. Over the last four decades there have been numerous proposals for coalition governments which got nowhere. The country has stagnated, there has been massive emigration and the prevailing attitude is not positive. In the circumstances, more inclusive governance, including power-sharing, should continue to be on the agenda. The dialogue was a start and the changes in parliament setting up committees with power to review executive action were significant but in our young, unsettled society it would be a mistake to believe that we do not need to continue talking, discussing new ideas and being open to experiments.
We must hope for and encourage the resumption of dialogue and urge that the issue of more inclusive governance become a prominent item on the agenda.