Guyana’s system of government and its electoral system are very different from the systems in place in the other 14 Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) countries. For a start, it has an Executive President whose powers under the Constitution are considerable. Understanding the system is important to appreciating the politics of winning the government and the Presidency.
In 11 of the CARICOM countries which, like Guyana, are former British colonies and Montserrat, which is a still a British colony, the electoral system divides the country into many constituencies. Each party wishing to contest a constituency puts forward one candidate to stand. Each voter in the constituency then casts one vote for the candidate of their choice. The candidate with the largest number of votes is elected as the Member of Parliament for that constituency, and the party whose elected members represent an overall majority, then forms the government.
The exception is where no party’s elected members constitute an overall majority. In such a case, political parties then bargain with each other to form a coalition government as happened recently in Britain where neither of the two largest political parties – Labour and Conservative – secured an overall majority of elected members. The Conservative Party and the smaller Liberal Democratic Party then struck a deal to form a collation government.
Among the CARICOM countries that have a system similar to Britain’s is Trinidad and Tobago where, at recent general elections, a number of political parties agreed to form an alliance to contest constituencies against the incumbent governing party but not against each other. At the end of the elections, having together secured an overall majority, they formed a coalition government.
Guyana’s system is different. Its system of elections is based on proportional representation. Each elector has one vote which is cast for a political party. The elector’s vote is applied to the election of 65 members of parliament by proportional representation in two ways. First, the country is divided into 10 administrative regions (geographical constituencies) which elect 25 seats. Some of these regions are allocated more seats than others dependent on the size of their population. Second, the remaining 40 seats, called “top up” seats, are then apportioned to parties based on the proportion they received of the total valid votes cast nationally. A vote for a party in the geographical constituency is simultaneously a vote for that party’s national “top up” seats.
Importantly, however, while the same single vote of an elector goes toward electing the President, the Constitution of Guyana states that a Presidential candidate shall be deemed to be elected President “if more votes are cast in favour of the list in which he is designated as Presidential candidate than in favour of any other list”. In other words, the successful Presidential candidate requires only a plurality of the votes, not an overall majority.
So, given this electoral system, it is possible for a political party that secures the most votes (a plurality) to gain the Presidency outright.
What is not possible is for a coalition of parties after the election to gain the Presidency. Any coalition that wishes both to form the government and get the Presidency must contest the election as a single entity with a single Presidential candidate whose name has to appear on its list as the Presidential candidate.
It is an interesting debate for lawyers versed in the intracises of the Guyana Constitution as to whether a President, elected by a plurality of the vote, is obliged to call on a coalition of parties (that may together outnumber the votes cast for his party) to form a government or could he simply call on his own minority party to form the government.
The Guyana Constitution states that it is the President who “shall appoint an elected member of the National Assembly to be Prime Minister of Guyana”, and the President who shall appoint “Vice Presidents and other Ministers from among persons who are elected members of the National Assembly”. There is no stipulation that such appointments should or must be made from elected members of a party or coalition parties that have an overall majority in Parliament.
Therefore, it appears that a President who is elected by a plurality of votes can choose Vice Presidents, the Prime Minister and Ministers from his own party whether it has an overall majority or not.
While it is possible for the majority of elected members in Parliament to vote against legislation and budgets creating havoc for a minority government, it would not necessarily stop the government from functioning. The classic case in point is Canada where the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been operating a minority government since 2006.
This all serves to underscore two things if Guyana is to remain politically stable, build on its recent economic successes and take advantage of the enormous economic possibilities of successful oil exploration and minerals development.
First, it would be best if next year’s general election is decisive in terms of a clear winner of both the Presidency and the overall majority in Parliament for one party. To this end, the ruling Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) should ensure that both its Presidential candidate and its policies are broad enough to appeal to a wider cross section of the electorate than its core supporters. Similarly, the now disparate opposition parties (disunited internally and fragmented) should try to forge an alliance that also has a Presidential candidate and policies that are attractive across a wide swath of the Guyanese population.
Second, whoever wins the election, the problems of race, of equal opportunity, of bridging the increasing gap between rich and poor, and of crime, require tackling in an open, transparent and institutionalized way or Guyana will always be a divided and weak society failing to be the cohesive and strong nation that it could be in its own interest, and the interest of its CARICOM neighbours.