The heavy fall a few days ago of 80-year-old President Biden, after stumbling on a sandbag in his path, does not reflect the quality of his negotiating skills. President Biden was faced with the need for congressional support in the US House of Representatives, in which the Democratic Party is in the minority, to extend the US debt limit. He demonstrated a stealthy but formidable capacity which wrestled a deal from a Republican majority, straining at the leash to register a salutary defeat against the Democratic President before the presidential elections next year. He then addressed the nation from the Oval Office and praised his Republican opponents, led by Speaker McCarthy, who is beholden to the fiercest reactionaries in the Republican Conference. President Biden negotiated the deal from under the noses of an aggressive Republican majority at the last minute, as they feared being accused of harming the US economy.
The US presidential system of government envisages negotiations between the executive and legislature both in cases where the President’s party controls the entire Congress and where the other party controls each or both. These negotiations sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. When they do fail the stability of the government is not affected. Both the Presidency and the Congress continue about their business in a stable environment. This occurs in most presidential systems of government. Recently, in the Brazil Congress, where President Lula’s Workers Party does not control a majority, the Government lost the vote on two major issues relating to the environment and indigenous matters. But the Government’s stability has not been challenged. In neither case is the Government likely to fall on a motion of no confidence or on the refusal to pass a budget.
Guyana has a combined Presidential and Westminster system of Government. This constitutional framework for governance was designed by the 1980 constitution. It was designed to combine the strengths of both systems in order to preserve and protect the unlawful incumbency of one political party in office for an indefinite period. There is no evidence that it was subject to wide internal discussion within the PNC before being presented to the Constituent Assembly, to which a rigged Parliament was converted for the purpose of approving the draft constitution presented by the PNC. The word is that it was drafted by the then Attorney General, Dr. Mohamed Shahabuddeen. The weakness of this one-man show was manifested in the 2011-2015 period when the minority PPP government, faced an implacable opposition, neither having had any experience in negotiating with each other. Apart from the US and Brazil, the entire Latin America has presidential systems, where governing parties do not necessarily have majorities in the Congresses and are forced to negotiate. In much of Europe coalition governments hold office and are formed and sustained by negotiations.
The people of Guyana had rebelled against the 1980 constitution as being a fraudulent imposition in the year that Walter Rodney was assassinated. In the early 2000s, based on the report of the Constitution Reform Commission, the Guyana Constitution was amended to usher in an era of negotiation. Several constitutional mechanisms were enshrined, the most important of which were the Sectoral Parliamentary Committees. In these bodies it was expected that critical examination of government policies would have been undertaken and negotiations engaged in. They have never functioned. The Human Rights Commission has languished in the constitution, on paper, never having been established. Guyana’s political system has never accommodated a culture of discourse and inclusivity, except in brief fits and starts. We have degenerated to the level where our political parties only shout at each other across the aisle of the Parliament Chamber.
Negotiating a coalition government in 2011 would have transformed Guyana’s political culture in many ways. Political stability would have been maintained, inclusivity would have reigned and ethno-political domination would have subsided. Collaborative governance would have trumped single party rule. The attempt to rig the 2020 general and regional elections would not have occurred. The many controversies over the developing petroleum industry would not have been taking place. Is it too late?
A few political observers in Guyana have long publicly advanced shared governance as a political and constitutional system best suited to Guyana’s political and ethnic make-up and history. Large numbers of Guyanese are silently sympathetic to such a method of governance but not in sufficient numbers to influence movement in that direction. The two main political parties have at one time or another, when in opposition, supported constitutional change to introduce shared governance, but have opportunistically withdrawn that support as soon as they achieve political office. The vast majority of supporters of the two main political parties have no interest in sharing power with each other, so that there is no internal pressure on political parties to keep their promises on shared governance. Even the lesser level of cooperation between the political parties, namely, inclusive governance, strongly supported by the US Government, and enshrined in our constitution, has not been implemented. The few voices now appear to be whispers in the darkness.