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Tuesday, May 16, 2006


by David Hinds

The Caribbean is usually referred to as one of the most democratic regions of the world. That is a myth. The basis for that claim is the region's general adherance to the parliamentary system and the holding of periodic competitive, free and fair elections. Given the prevalence of one party states and the lack of competitive elections in most ex colonies, the Caribbean is said to be quite stable politically. Consequently, some people would have us believe that the sum total of democracy is free and fair elections; that all you have to do to satisfy the democratic requirement is to have a love affair every five years.

Electoral parties, in particular, tend to operate as if the world begins and ends with elections. Everything they do in between elections is geared towards preparing for the next election. Many would do almost anything to win an election. It is the passport to heaven. Some parties, therefore, come to power on the basis of free and fair elections, yet rule in the most undemocratic manner.

There is an argument that too much democracy is not good, as it leads to disorder and anarchy. What nonsense! You either have democracy or you don't have democracy. I know that the term democracy means different things to different people, but to most of us it constitutes things such as freedom from, freedom to, freedom of, equality, fair play, liberty, and justice. Some of us have argued that our Caribbean from the period of slavery to the present has never been democratic. Any system that is based on domination of any sort is by definition undemocratic. Pure and simple.

Although the Caribbean has gotten rid of colonialism, it has retained most, if not all, of the institutions of the Colonial state, a state system that was oppressive in nature and geared towards upholding and protecting the interests of the ruling class. And because the ruling class was of a particular race group, it was also geared towards upholding racial domination. With the attainment of constitutional independence this oppressive state system was left in place . It was buttressed by constitutions that generally gave enormous powers to the rulers. I submit therefore that despite the parliamentary system and free and fair elections, the post-colonial Caribbean political system is in essence undemocratic.

The Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet ,for example, have a free hand to do a lot of things so long as they are supported by a majority of the parliament There is no separation of powers of the three branches of government. The Prime Minister appoints the judicial branch; there is no confirmation before the legislative branch. The legislative branch for the most part functions as a rubber stamp of the executive branch which is where the power lies. In the case of Guyana, the party leader decides who represents the party in parliament. Even in the other countries where the is the constituency system, the leader has the biggest , if not the only, say on who runs in a particular constituency.

There are also no Checks and Balance, so there is no oversight of the executive branch. The opposition , then, is supposed to be the watchdog, but it cannot do so within the constitutional framework. This despite the fact that most of the constitutions designate the opposition leader part of the executive. However, in practice the office is not part of the decision making process.

In these circumstances the party assumes paramountcy; it is the powerhouse. It controls the government. Burnham was bold enough to declare this and make it formal policy. The others practice it without declaring it. The state in the Caribbean therefore, functions like a one party state. Hence there is need for constitutional reform aimed at putting in place the framework for a democratic culture. One cannot necessarily legislate a democratic culture, but you can have laws that facilitate its flowering rather than stifling it.

The above comments are meant as a reaction to the lack of enthusiasm of the PPP and the PNC parties in Guyana although both parties promised in their manifestoes in 1992 to work for it. Constitutional reform is even more urgent in Guyana since the existing constitution is the most obscene in the region. This constitution was enacted by Burnham in 1980 as part of his consolidation of authoritarian rule. Although it includes many provisions from the 1966 constitution, it made the latter look like a saintly document.

My comments are also a reaction to a comment made by Prime Minister of Guyana and de-facto leader of the ruling PPP. According to Mrs Jagan, a broad-based government is not possible in Guyana at this time. She said that any one-party government has to be broad minded. Apparently she has no problem with a government that represents just 54% of the electorate so long as the government is broad minded. Never mind that majority represents one race group. Never mind that governments rules with a constitution that confers upon its leader kingly powers. All it has to do is to be broad minded. Well, with all due respect to Mrs Jagan, I cant see how such a position could be broad minded.

Yes, the PPP is a fairly and freely elected government, even if the 1992 election was not free from fear. But that does not make it a representative government. And that cannot be achieved by mere broad mindedness, although that is important. Remember there is no strong legislature nor local government that can serve as a counterweight to the central government. The party that holds governmental power holds is all powerful.

Let me remind you readers that Mr Burnham came to power in free elections. Although they were not free from fear given the racial situation at the time, at least they were not rigged. Between 1964 and 1968 the PNC set the stage for its later authoritarian rule by manipulating the constitution , especially the electoral laws The PNC did not manufacture the parliamentary majority it used to push these changes through. It got UF and PPP members to cross the floor-- Mohamed Kassim of the UF and George Bowman, Mohamed Saffee and Zehuradeen from the PPP.. There was nothing constitutionally Jagan and D'AIGUAR could do to stop their members from going over to the PNC. Mr Panday has used this strategy to good effect in Trinbago. So did Mr Compton in St Lucia. It is interesting that the new Anthony administration in St Lucia has promised to pass legislation to prevent this occurrence.

The PNC's victory at the 1968 election came largely as a result of rigging the overseas votes and the abuse of proxy voting . Without the seats from the overseas vote the PNC would have fallen short of the majority. But overseas voting was not a PNC invention. The provision for it was written into the Independence constitution as was the case with proxy voting. What the PNC did was to use its majority in parliament to activate overseas voting and to increase the number of proxy votes a person could cast from three to five.

The point here is that the PNC used the constitution to set the stage for its later authoritarian rule. What is it to prevent the PPP from doing so? The PPP has in its hands a constitution that is ten times more conducive to authoritarian rule than the one Burnham had. The PPP operates with the same state that the PNC operated with even if it does not have the same control of it as the PNC did.

It is not enough to win an election and assume that you have democracy. As Clarence Ellis has pointed out an electoral majority could degenerate into a dictatorship given Guyana's racial situation. It is not enough for us to depend on the broad-mindedness or niceness of the leaders to uphold democratic rule. There must be safeguards and laws that compel leaders to rule democratically. It is important that we realize that our Caribbean does not have a democratic culture; it has to be developed. Constitutional reform that has as it score power-sharing is a place to start. The masses of people will do the rest once they are guaranteed that elections are not a platform for the perpetuation of the victors and the vanquished.

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