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Is Guyana headed towards a dictatorship?

Kaieteur Falls in Guyana

The Jamaica Observer thinks so

Guyana is a country where democracy has traditionally been weak; indeed, for long periods political manipulation has just barely masked some form of dictatorship.

The history of Guyana shows a consistent unwillingness to accept the will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections. The root cause of the undemocratic tendency is the unabated tension between the two ethnic groups, the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese. This persistent, pandemic and virulent racism has become even more perverted and vicious because both tribes see control of the state as a means of distributing scarce benefits in a very poor country.

This practice of racial exclusion from the scarce benefits derivable from the state spawns social and political polarisation.

Guyana has a National Assembly which is a unicameral legislature of 65 members of which 25 members are elected from 10 constituencies by proportional representation and 40 members are chosen also on the basis of proportional representation from national lists named by the political parties.

The president is elected for a five-year term on the basis of parliamentary elections which were last held on November 28, 2011. The president is not directly elected. At the time of elections each party presenting a slate of candidates for the assembly must designate a leader who will become president if that party receives the largest number of votes.

The current situation is that the Indo-Guyanese-controlled People’s Progressive Party won 32 seats in the 2011 election and has formed the Government under Mr Donald Ramotar. A coalition of opposition groups, including the People’s National Congress dominated by Afro-Guyanese, and the Alliance for Change, controls the majority of 33 seats in parliament.

The opposition coalition on August 7, 2014 delivered to the clerk of the National Assembly a motion of “no confidence” against the Government of Mr Ramotar, who knows that this will succeed and new elections will be necessary.

Since the announcement of the intention to have a vote of “no confidence” he has refused to convene a sitting of parliament. Now in a move which undermines the democratic process, Mr Ramotar has prorogued parliament for six months, a move some suggest can be repeated until elections are constitutionally due. This would certainly provoke a constitutional crisis.

His specious justification for this undemocratic act is a transparent farce, claiming that proroguing Parliament was his “sole recourse” to preserving the life of the current Parliament and to bring an end to the opposition’s “political gamesmanship”.

Mr Ramotar also gave the “assurance” that the six months’ prorogation would be used to engage the parliamentary opposition in “constructive ways”. He further stated that if no agreement for “normalcy” was reached, then he would have no choice but to hold early general elections.

All this is clearly intended to maintain himself in power and delay elections as long as possible.

Meanwhile, he has done his country considerable reputational damage. To deliberately create a situation in which the executive is exercising power without a functioning parliament is a subversion of democracy. It is tantamount to the conversion of an elected president into a de facto dictator.

The Economist sees this situation this way.

WHEN 33 opposition MPs took their seats in Guyana’s National Assembly on November 10th for parliament’s first sitting in since July, they faced a bank of empty chairs. In place of government politicians were copies of a presidential decree that “prorogued” parliament until further notice. Governance was barely working before. The suspension of parliament ends the pretence.

The source of the confrontation is the 2011 election, which produced a split result. Donald Ramotar won the presidency but two parties opposed to him secured a single-seat majority in the National Assembly. President and parliament have bickered ever since. Mr Ramotar suspended the legislature to avoid a no-confidence vote, which looked certain to pass. He will now attempt to govern his fractious country of 750,000 people without recourse to parliament, possibly until the end of April, when he needs a new budget for routine spending to continue.

The conflict goes deeper than ordinary political rivalry. It is a big part of the reason that Guyana has remained relatively poor (see chart on previous page). Politics have been polarised by race for 60 years. Most Indo-Guyanese—descendants of indentured labourers who were brought over when the country was a British colony—support Mr Ramotar’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Most Afro-Guyanese have backed the People’s National Congress (PNC), now part of the main opposition group, A Partnership For National Unity.

After unrest in the early 1960s, the PNC held power through rigged elections for 28 years. During the 1980s Guyana was briefly nearly as poor as Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. From the 1990s coalitions led by the PPP formed governments made increasingly complacent by unstinting support from Indo-Guyanese, the largest group of voters.

The co-habitation of the past three years has been no more productive. Mr Ramotar has vetoed opposition-sponsored legislation and refused to call local-government elections—which have not been held since 1994. President and parliament have failed to co-operate on building infrastructure or on enacting needed legislation to fight money laundering.

The immediate prospects are not bright. Without a new budget, which is unlikely to pass, parliament must be dissolved by April, triggering new elections. The likeliest outcome would then be a continuation of divided government or a return to the stultifying rule of the PPP.

But there are hopeful signs. Mixed marriages have produced mixed-race children. Guyana’s indigenous Amerindian population has grown; it is now nearly a tenth of the total. Voters weary of the old politics provide a base for the multi-ethnic Alliance for Change, which took seven of the 65 parliamentary seats in 2011. Some Guyanese want to move beyond stalemate.

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