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Coalition politics: T&T and Guyana

By Rickey Singh

THE interesting debate currently developing in Trinidad and Tobago over a likely policy shift by the People's National Movement (PNM), the country's oldest party, to embrace a hitherto rejected idea of coalescing with other parties to ensure future electoral victories, would likely hold much interest for other Caribbean Community (Caricom) states. Perhaps none more so than Guyana.

What would have been considered political heresy under the PNM's founder-leader and 'political father' of this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation, Dr Eric Williams, and right up to its last political leader and  prime minister, Patrick Manning, is now being voiced with seemingly cautious determination by the party's current first-time leader, Dr Keith Rowley—ahead of a coming annual convention.

Accustomed to winning and losing on its own from its pre-independence history of multi-party national elections, very much in the fashion of Guyana's People's Progressive Party (PPP), the PNM, like the PPP, (the latter until 1964) has always opposed ditching the institutionalised first-past-the-post electoral system in preference for Proportional Representation (PR), that more readily facilitates coalition governments.

The idea of the PNM moving away from "winning-or-losing-alone" politics is still very much at the talking and speculative stage.

It is occurring at a time when Guyanese are experiencing how a first-time one-seat majority in parliament can be manipulated by an opposition coalition against a minority government of the PPP—accustomed to winning all freely contested national elections.

This talk of the PNM's likely shift to the courting of potential electoral allies, is occurring, curiously, in the face of recurring pathetic displays of threatened disruption in the life of the People's Partnership (PP) administration that resulted from the May 2010 elections.

Of course, those engaged in the game of threatening to cut ties with the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led coalition government  and  become part of the parliamentary opposition, would be aware that unless there is a serious fracture in the dominant United National Congress (UNC) that party can comfortably continue alone to govern until either a snap or scheduled national election.

 Other than the UNC, the only 'partner' in the coalition government is the Congress of the People (COP) with six seats—quite a change from 2007 when, under then founder-leader Winston Dookeran, it had succeeded in securing more than 22 per cent of valid votes but won NO seats.

Under the PR electoral system that could not have occurred. This was also the bitter experience for Karl Hudson-Phillips at the 1980 election at which his Orgnisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) had managed to win some 90,000 votes but "not a damn seat" (as had been the declared angry wish of then Prime Minister and PNM leader, George Chambers).

Again, that could not have occurred under the PR electoral system. Nor, for that matter, as happened in 2000 when the UNC—led by then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday—secured approximately 50 per cent of the official votes to the PNM's 46.5 per cent but with both parties in a tie for parliamentary seats.

The political drama to unfold from those results was a virtual replay of what had occurred in colonial British Guiana in December 1964 following the first-ever national election under the PR electoral system imposed by a then government in London.

In Port of Spain in 2001, a then-President ANR Robinson, former leader of the NAR and ex-coalition partner of Panday, had opted to deviate from established British-style constitutional norms by ignoring then sitting Prime Minister Panday form a new government and in doing so choosing, instead, to call upon then PNM leader Manning.

Back in December 1964 although  Dr Cheddi Jagan's incumbent PPP had won, under the first-time PR electoral system, the largest bloc of votes—46 per cent, to Forbes Burnham People's National Congress' 41 per cent against the minority United Force's 12 per cent— the then British Governor, acting in accordance with his government in London, refused to first request Jagan to form a new government. A defiant Jagan forced the British government to dismiss him from office by way of a constitutional amendment.

While, therefore, there are undoubtedly pluses and minuses in both the PR and First-Past-the-Post electoral systems, as established by examples in Suriname and Guyana, there is a new and sensational manifestation in parliamentary governance in Guyana.

It relates to Guyanese frustration in governance with a less than a year old first-time opposition coalition, with a one-seat majority in a 65-member National Assembly.

The opposition coalition of the dominant A Partner for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance for Change (AFC) is currently seeking to make political virtue of disrupting  parliamentary proceedings by ignoring established conventions.

These include rulings by their own chosen Speaker eventually forcing him last week to openly decry their disruptive behaviour as he adjourned parliament until November 22, leaving Guyanese to wonder about the next development.

Meanwhile, here in T&T, those discussing the likelihood of a PNM outreach for potential electoral allies, may need to also give consideration to the pluses and minuses of coalitions for governance and/or in opposition against an elected government.

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