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PEOPLE & THINGS: Focus on Guyana

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Focus on Guyana

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Over the last few weeks the region has been transfixed by events taking place in Guyana, largely because what has happened there has introduced an almost unprecedented period of political uncertainty.

The issue could be simplified by stating that the president has unilaterally suspended parliament to prevent the almost certain passing of a motion of no-confidence, which would trigger a general election. While not untrue, the foregoing statement oversimplifies a complex political scenario that has been three years in the making and does not speak to action on the part of the president that is unconstitutional.

Properly analysed, this issue is rooted in the outcome of the 2011 general election that was a seat-split between the governing PPP/Civic (32) and all other opposition parties (33). This was effectively a “hung parliament”, resulting in a minority government. As a general rule, a hung parliament results in “fresh elections” sooner rather than later since minority governments can survive, but seldom do without some type of political alliance which is conspicuously absent in Guyana.

The PPP/Civic government under the leadership of President Donald Ramotar was therefore “stillborn” since the day he was sworn in (December 3, 2011); however it has survived close to three years before the opposition parties made good on their threat to introduce a vote of no-confidence, which would most certainly succeed.

The political reality behind the survival of the Ramotar administration is interesting and makes this more recent event less pertinent to the long-term political development of Guyana. The 1970 constitution awards the party or coalition with the single largest quantum of support the presidency and opportunity to form a government.

Hence the PPP/Civic has that option even though the other parties (APNU/AFC) cumulatively hold more seats. The constitution does give the president the option to draw other partners into his government to boost his numbers, but the reality of the political divide in Guyana is such that this is not likely to happen unless the PPP/Civic is willing to offer up the presidency which is as likely as a hurricane in Guyana.

The significant political point here is that the constitution conveys the presidency to the leading team based on party lists submitted before the election and not after and since the APNU and AFC have not agreed to an alliance (then or now), the PPP/Civic will probably continue to win the presidency although not holding a majority of seats in Parliament.

It would be fair to say that the PPP/Civic has ambled through the last three years in office and is in many ways similar to the DLP in Barbados since they have “won” an election but lack the political capital to impact significantly on the type of development that is urgently needed.

The futility of the Ramotar government’s plight was perhaps best demonstrated with respect to the Hydro-Electric Power (Amendment) Bill 2013, which sought parliamentary approval for a loan of US$175 to construct a hydroelectric plant in Amaila Falls.

The total cost of this project was US$840 million and represented the type of investment that would be a watershed in the development of any Caribbean country. Investment aside, the projected production of 165 MW of environmentally clean power also had the potential to move Guyana to the “head of the class” regionally in the industrial arena since it would now be able to compete with Trinidad and Tobago as a site of low-cost electricity with vast land space and an abundance of well educated inexpensive labour.

This project should easily attract the support of even the most critical opposition, but failed to get past parliament because the opposition had superior numbers and unspecified concerns about transparency.

The Amaila Falls debacle came after the opposition applied significant cuts to budgets taken to parliament for approval by the Ramotar government and demonstrated the futility of the PPP/Civic effort at governing. At the same time, however, the fact that this government lasted three years also tells a relevant story which is no less relevant to the way forward.

Essentially, the combined opposition is where it is because it could not agree to form a coalition before the 2011 election, and while a no-confidence vote could have been brought on the first day of the first sitting, that did not occur because the combined opposition could not agree on that either. Ironically, although the combined opposition has now agreed to “bring down” the Ramotar government, it still has not announced agreement on a coalition with a single list of candidates under a single presidential candidate.

The reasons for the opposition’s unwillingness to unite are well known to those of us who are close to Guyana’s politics, and those reasons are too complex to detail here. The arguments are compelling, but in my opinion only mask the reality of a combined opposition that is entirely too preoccupied with idealistic notions and has lost sight of the more important objective.

The opposition is therefore so unwilling to compromise sufficiently to form a coalition that the PPP/Civic has effectively been handed a government in 2011 and will no doubt be handed it back whenever the next election is called. The reality of the political divide in Guyana today is such that while the PPP/Civic support has diminished, it will likely continue to be the single largest political force there for some time and as long as Guyana’s opposition does not get “its act together” this situation there will remain unchanged.

It is for this reason that I am more concerned about this persistent lack of unity among opposition forces than any suggested “hijack” of the constitution by President Ramotar since he can only delay the inevitable for six months and thereafter the more important question will still need to be answered.

• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).