In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar there are four lines (IV. iii. 219-222) applicable to Guyana:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
These lines tell us that when an opportunity for progress arises in the life of a society, it should be fully grasped, or otherwise, the neglect will lead to disillusion, despondency and destruction.
Such an opportunity has presented itself with the results of the 28th November, 2011 General Elections, in which none of the three main parties has won a majority of the votes cast or of the seats in Parliament. The ‘man in the street’ in Georgetown or in the Corentyne or elsewhere must be told that the PPP/C did not win the election as such. The fiddled 1980 Constitution gives the presidency to the PPP/C by virtue of its gaining more seats than any other single party. Consequently, the President appoints his Cabinet to run the government. There is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the President from appointing Ministers from either or both of the other two main parties, or even from outside of the political parties. The PPP/C in its wisdom feels that there should be no power-sharing via the Cabinet, even though the majority of the votes cast were AGAINST the PPP/C.
John Public must be told that, according to our present Constitution, even if the 65 seats had been distributed as follows: 30, 28, and 7, the party that gained 30 seats still gets the presidency, even though the combined opposition has 35 seats. Other combinations in the allocation of the 65 seats can give the presidency to a party with an even smaller number of seats than 30, provided none of the other parties secures an equal or higher number of seats. In these cases there is no clear winner.
What is possible under the present Constitution was not possible under the 1966 Independence Constitution when the elected Head of Government (then the Prime Minister) had to be able to command the support of a majority of elected members of Parliament. Today the Head of Government (the President) can be elected with a minority of seats. That is what it is. And we speak conveniently of Westminister-type of government and politics, at a time when no single party gained a majority of seats in Parliament. Britain, whose governmental practices Guyana has inherited, has rarely had a minority government. In the last General Election in 2010 in Britain, the Labour Party lost its majority, and the Conservative Party gained the highest number of seats, but not a majority. The outcome is a coalition government with a Conservative Party Prime Minister and a Liberal Party Deputy Prime Minister.
In Guyana our recent General Elections provided the opportunity for a coalition government, either of all three parties or of PPP/C and APNU. Let us not fool ourselves. Sharing out the ministries means sharing the spoils of office. Control of the levers of power means control over the disbursement of government funds, control over the appointments to constitutional offices, control over the appointment of ambassadors, control over appointments to Boards, Commissions and Public Corporations. Holding the reins of power gives scope to control the appointment of persons in the Public Service whether on a permanent basis or on contract. Being in office and in power gives the holder the opportunity to hire and fire or to stifle and/or delay promotion. Parties in power in all countries have thereby been able to assert their influence over the lives of their citizens. Opposition parties in Parliaments do not have such power.
Furthermore, in Guyana we do not have all the ingredients of the Westminister-type government. The various conventions in Westminister are not observed in Guyana. Senior functionaries do not resign after serious failures in their ministries and/or departments, or after involvement in scandals. We speak glibly of separation of powers, but previously the Executive branch has had almost total control of Parliament. The Judiciary has had to function for years with an Acting Chancellor and an Acting Chief Justice. The 1966 Constitution gave us the post of Ombudsman, and yet still this important office has been vacant for years. Employees in the Public Service for years now do not have resort to a Public Service Appellate Tribunal. These and other failings lead to apathy, and dissatisfaction in the society, and increased migration.
More dissatisfaction is experienced in the society when we look at the quality of life and living. We are not referring only to material possessions. Georgetown is filthy! There is garbage everywhere! Drains, gutters and trenches are filled with litter both in Georgetown and in other communities. More persons now own vehicles, but many persons (including senior citizens) must still use public transportation by road and by river. This can often be a harrowing experience. Mini-buses frequently exceed speed limits, even on the Demerara Harbour Bridge. Bus drivers and conductors/conductresses feel that they have a right to routinely carry overload. There is still loud music in mini-buses. And often there is no honest policeman/policewoman in sight to bring the offenders to book for speeding, for dangerous driving, or for playing loud music. More co-operation is needed to address the wrongs in our country.
One would have thought that with the present allocation of seats in Parliament (32, 26, 7) ministers of government would have been appointed from at least the two larger parties and thereby reduce the sheer antagonism, rivalry and protesting in party politics. The opportunity was provided for genuine collaboration and more consultation and co-operation among rival political parties. Let’s face it. National elections in Guyana are not fought on issues. There is no need to produce manifestoes. How many electors read them? Most electors vote largely on the basis of race. Guyana is not like Jamaica or Trinidad or Barbados or Britain, where thousands of electors vote for Party A in one election, and then vote for Party B in the next election, and then again for Party A in the following election. And since no party secured an outright victory, the chance to reduce hostilities and to develop working alliances was possible. In the absence of a national or coalition government, the opportunity for creative and innovative working partnerships in government has been lost. We are going to have more of the same as in the last ten or fifteen or twenty years.
What could have prevented one party having the presidency and the other the premiership? One party can have the Ministry of Finance, while another can have the Ministry of Home Affairs. One party can hold the Ministry of Education, while the Ministry of Health goes to the other party. The Ministry of Agriculture for one, and the Ministry of Works for the other. The foregoing suggestions apply to the more important and strategic portfolios. However, there is a reluctance and unwillingness to give up any power in the face of the fact that the majority of voters did not support the incumbent party in office. The fear of another party in power is dreadful. The exposure of any suspect deals/contracts is a real possibility. Hence, no change is desired. It is in accordance with the law that the presidency has to go to the list with the highest number of votes (not necessarily a majority), and it is also in accordance with the law that the speakership goes to the nominee with highest number of votes (not necessarily of the ruling party). So what then? In either case the election of the President or the election of the Speaker is valid. But it is the implication of the loss of either election that is feared. Those against the PPP/C fear the manner in which the PPP/C will rule. And the PPP/C fear the rulings of a Speaker who comes from the Opposition benches!
The future for Guyana is not too hopeful. Wishful thinking does not make it so. Persons on both sides of the political divide can look forward to more of the same of the past years. And so we may yet say with Shakespeare:
“Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
Walter B. Alexander
(Retired Deputy Permanent Secretary
And Retired Headmaster)
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