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Talks could lead to real Guyana democracy

By Ronald Sanders

 The governing People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP) and the Opposition parties in Guyana are locked in a unique governance struggle in which two combined opposition parties command the majority in the legislature and can therefore block legislation introduced by the Government.

The PPP’s Donald Ramotar was elected president of Guyana by a plurality of the votes cast in general elections in December 2011, but the party failed to win an overall majority in the legislature.

Since then, the country has had to experiment with an exceptional model of demo­cracy because the elections produced no overall winner, and therefore, unlike other countries in the Caribbean, there has been no winner “taking all”.

Instead, the government and the two parties that comprise the opposition have had to bargain with each other to accomplish a legis­lative programme.

The two opposition parties in the legislature are: A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC). APNU is itself a coalition of political parties, mainly the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA).

In combination, APNU and the AFC have a one-vote majority over the governing PPP and, upon occasion, they have used that majority to stop government legislation and spending to which they object, and to demand changes that they favour. The process has been acrimonious as each party tries to win public support for the positions it adopts toward legislation.

In time, this period of Guyana’s governance will be an interesting and instructive study for scholars of governance, politics, democracy and constitutions. It may, in fact, point to new ways and more democratic forms of governance in the future, not only for Guyana but all Caribbean countries.

Right now, however, the newness of the situ­ation and the rawness of the inter-party bargaining in the legislature and in the court of public opinion are too urgent to allow for sober reflection and beneficial refinement of a system that may come to be the norm in Guyana.

That system could be one in which no political party ever wins an overall majority in the legislature, and bargaining, compromise and a real effort at consensus among elected parties become the norm. In other words, no single political party would be able to rule the roost, and inter-party bargaining in the legislature would become the mechanism for national policy setting and budget allocations with the Government as the implementing machinery.

For sure, none of the political parties in Guyana’s legislature will ever stop hoping for an overall majority and, undoubtedly, they will continue working toward that objective. But, to do so, there will have to be a radical change in the politics, policies and programmes of the PPP and PNC—not least would be broadening the base of the supporters to whom they appeal.

Historically, the PPP has cultivated its principal support among the people of East Indian extraction, while the PNC (the main party in APNU) has sought its main backing from the people of African ancestry. Neither of these two main ethnic groups in Guyana is now numerous enough to give either party an overall majority; each would have to broaden its base significantly and that process will take time. Even if the process is launched now, it certainly won’t produce benefits for the next general election, due by December 2016.

The success of the AFC in securing representation in Guyana’s parliament is an indicator that there is a significant number of people who see little national benefit in race-based politics. Certainly, the younger generation of Guyanese (and there is now a significant number of the population under 35), show a greater tendency not only to racial tolerance but also to integration. Like everywhere else, they also want change from the entrenched politics that has dominated the country.

The democratic experiment in Guyana of a ruling party that does not control the majority in the legislature is experiencing its most severe test so far over anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing legislation.

The Guyana government is required to achieve the adoption of this legislation by parliament as the initial measure to avoid being black-listed by the Geneva-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for non-compliance with rules it set and which have been accepted by the powerful governments of the world as international standards.

As a former chairman (2003-2004) and before that vice-chairman (2001-2002) of the Carib­bean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) that conducted a review of Guyana’s situation and found it deficient, I understand fully the adverse implications—for Guyana’s financial services sector, businesses, and even ordinary citizens—of the legislation not being adopted as a first step in a raft of compliance machinery that Guyana is required to implement.

The passage of the legislation is enmeshed in the power struggle between the governing PPP and the two opposition parties in the legislature—APNU and AFC. All parties recognise the importance to the country of not being designated as “non-cooperative” and, therefore, blacklisted internationally.

The opposition parties are therefore pressing the government to deliver on demands they have made that are not related to the anti-money laundering legislation (although some amendments have been suggested) as the principal condition of agreeing to it.

The government, on the other hand, is relying on both international pressure and the rightful anxiety of the private sector to cause the opposition parties to pass the legislation without their ancillary demands being satisfied.

The financial services sector, businesses in Guyana and any Guyanese citizens who send or receive money from abroad have genuine cause for concern. The Guyana economy could itself suffer a setback.

At the time of writing, the negotiations between the government and the opposition show no sign of an early resolution. These negotiations will be the biggest test of the political parties to operate Guyana’s new form of democratic governance in the national interest. It is time for maturity on all sides to work for balance and compromise. It is no longer business as usual.

• Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant, senior fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat.

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