Given Guyana’s entrenched voting patterns, it is somewhat surprising that there are not greater attempts at encouraging more candidates running as independents in national and regional elections since this is one of the ways, outside of constitutional changes, for these voting patterns to be broken.
All the election results since 1992 have evidenced the polarization of the electorate mainly into two camps. The results of the 1992, 1997 and 2001 elections were a virtual carbon copy. In 2006, the PNCR lost some ground and its overall share of the votes declined, while the AFC gained an impressive five seats in its first outing. But even the 2006 elections did not suggest a break with the past.
The present electoral system encourages this outcome. The PR system that Guyana uses, in a bifurcated electorate, will always encourage ethnic voting polarization. While during the 2001 constitutional reform process, an element of constituency politics was introduced, the manner in which the respective allocations are determined is still to a great extent informed by proportional representation.
The system was not changed because the main political parties have a good chance of winning under this system. As such the system does not encourage independent candidates. If it did perhaps, we would have had hung parliaments a long time and the balance of power would have shifted within the National Assembly.
The two main parties are expected again to hog the votes in this year’s election. Even though the PNCR is not contesting this year’s election by itself, it is doing so under a partnership called APNU, and it is most likely that APNU will get the traditional votes that the PNCR enjoyed, less those supporters that are disenchanted with the party. The PPP is also expected to retain its votes, as well as those that it will gain by its inroads into the PNCR’s traditional support base and its expansion into other constituencies.
Polarization is therefore also expected to characterize this year’s elections, though it will be interesting to see whether this will be less than before.
How can this polarization be reduced? In the absence of serious electoral reform, the strategy that has been adopted seems to be to encourage third parties to gain enough seats to hold the balance of power.
There have been some third parties, third forces and third-force coalitions. Some of these have had ethnic bases. Others have been primarily class-based; appealing to the middle classes, including the emerging middle class. As such, a genuine multiracial third force is yet to emerge. The AFC attracts significant multiracial support, but it still at this early stage draws its support primarily from the middle class. Its support is thus class-based.
The system clearly is not encouraging to persons wishing to run as independents, and despite the odds being stacked against non-party candidates, there are possibilities for independents to run and gain a seat in the National Assembly and then use this forum to enhance their political support.
All it will take is about 7,500 votes for any candidate to win a seat in the National Assembly. It is possible for a candidate to win a seat with under 2,000 votes based on the fact that if there is a seat that is not allocated under the top-up system, then the party or candidate with the highest remaining votes gains that seat. That is how the United Force sneaked into parliament in one of our previous elections.
Given the opportunity to become a member of the National Assembly, the benefits that go with this position and the possibilities of enhancing one’s political career, it is surprising that more persons are not seeking election as independents.
In the absence of electoral reform – which is not at present in the interest of any of the two main political parties – more independent candidates are emerging and seeking to gain a foothold in the National Assembly, which may be the way to begin the process of reducing the stifling political polarization that afflicts our political system.
And it is not as if there are no politically ambitious candidates. There are many of them who love the limelight. The question is whether they have what it takes to gain those 7,500 votes to secure a seat.
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