National Reconciliation and the Power-Sharing debate

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THE developments in the wake of the March 2 elections have prompted a renewal of the debate over the kind of political system that is best suited to the ethno-political nature of the Guyanese society. This debate arises from the widespread feeling that Guyana needs a deliberate process of national reconciliation. Clearly, the events since March 2 have again highlighted how politically divided the country is and exposes its vulnerability as we enter the era of oil and gas. It is against this background that analysts have revisited power-sharing in the form of a National Government as an alternative to one-party or one-dominant party governance.

The debate over power-sharing dates back to the early 1960s when on the eve of what turned out to be a prolonged period of bitter ethnic disturbances, Eusi Kwayana, then known as Sydney King, proposed a system of “Joint Premiership” as a possible solution to the gathering crisis. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected, and the rest is now history. Since then, the issue has been engaged by successive political generations with little movement beyond rhetoric. The PPP’s 1977 National Patriotic Front, the WPA’s 1979 Government of National Unity and Reconstruction and the joint PNC-PPP “Fatherland” proposal come to mind, with the latter actually evolving into actual talks between the two sides.

In the wake of the disputed 1997 elections and the signing of the Herdmanston Accord, the issue was raised anew. This time the lead was taken by a younger generation of PNC leaders who along with some independent voices and organisations such as ACDA, sought to convince the then top leadership of the PNC that “shared governance” as they preferred to call it was the path to national harmony. The PPP poured cold water on the initiative by arguing that any power -sharing mechanism must be preceded by trust between the two major parties.

But after a period of hesitation, the PNC through its then leader Desmond Hoyte, threw its full support behind the idea. In one of the most memorable statements on power-sharing, Hoyte argued the following: “ An adjusted system of governance for our country — whether we call it “power-sharing”, “shared governance” or any other name — appears to be an idea whose time has come. It could hardly be claimed that our present arrangements are working in the best interests of the country and its citizens. The imperfections obtrude everywhere and are a serious obstacle to national cohesion and development. In the circumstances, the imperative of constitutional adjustment appears to be unavoidable. We cannot stand on the seashore and bid the waves recede. I suggest, therefore, that we as a party give careful and anxious consideration to the insistent voices that are calling for constitutional and political reform.”

Unfortunately, Hoyte died a few months after that declaration. It was left to his successor, Robert Corbin, to advance the agenda. He reached out to the PPP and sought agreement on a joint government, but that initiative was scuttled by the top PPP leadership. Corbin then settled for an abbreviated arrangement with the WPA and other opposition groups that saw the evolution of the APNU in 2011. This group was later broadened to include the AFC in what became known as the APNU+AFC Coalition. The coalition committed itself to an inclusive form of governance in its manifesto and actually began to lay the groundwork for the necessary constitutional reform. But it did not find a willing ally in the PPP which has continued to hold steadfastly to the winner-takes-all form of governance.

So, in the wake of the just concluded elections and the sharp ethno-political divide that has re-emerged, the question of power-sharing has again surfaced. One of the newer parties, ANUG, actually made the issue the centre of its campaign. But it was a statement by Kwayana and Moses Bhagwan, both foundation members of the WPA, that placed the issue at the forefront of the current debate. The two political elders made the following plea: “ We ask that you find the grace to enter without delay into talks to establish a national government based on the principle of parity. Such negotiations would necessarily have to be consistent with the constitution, but it is entirely possible to envision a situation, for example, in which the winner of the 2020 elections takes the presidency but asks their prime ministerial candidate to resign, so that someone from the other major party can be appointed and where a collective cabinet can be appointed. Such a compromise would also give greater latitude to MPs to vote against the government instead of following the herd, offering greater opportunities for accountability against corruption.”

Since the Kwayana-Bhagwan statement the response has mirrored the partisan divide. Those sympathetic to the PPP have dismissed the proposal as a gambit aimed at denying the PPP its right to govern. One such commentator, Christopher Ram, called on the two elders to instead ask Granger to concede the election to the PPP and dismissed the power-sharing proposal as a recipe for gridlock. On the other hand, it has gained the support of organisations such as ACDA, the WPA and commentators such as Henry Jeffrey.

This publication lends its voice to the call for national reconciliation regardless of the eventual winners of the election. We feel that a power-sharing arrangement in the form of a national government that includes both the coalition parties and the PPP is an idea worth exploring. Guyana simply cannot afford the conflict that arises from the winner-takes-all system. The coalition parties have already committed themselves to an inclusive form of governance. It is now up to the PPP to signal its acceptance of such an approach. Every day that party resists movement away from one-party domination, it is subjecting Guyana to unnecessary anxiety and instability.