The political system of Guyana

What do we consider the political system of Guyana to be? On the one hand, there is an official who is both head of state and head of government, who is determined by nationwide plurality vote. On the other hand, the constitution, in Article 106, paragraph 6, states:

The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by the vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence.

Thus the president is clearly subject to majority confidence, like a parliamentary head of government–President David Granger and his cabinet fell due to a vote in December, 2018. Superficially, this implies a form of elected prime-ministerial government (like Israel 1996–2001), in that an elected head of government, and the cabinet, must maintain confidence in order to stay in office. Thus we appear to have separate origin and fused survival. Moreover, the president has no veto power other than suspensory (article 170, para. 4-5), and no other constitutional legislative powers that can be used against the majority of parliament.

It is, however, questionable whether we should conceptualize the executive’s origin as separate. The president is elected as the designated candidate on the list of the party that wins a plurality. On this point, the constitution, at Art. 177, says, in part, that a list of candidates for parliament,

shall designate not more than one of those candidates as a Presidential candidate. An elector voting at such an election in favour of a list shall be deemed to be also voting in favour of the Presidential candidate named in the list.

There is thus no separate election for president. On the one hand, this could be classified as just another case of fused-ballot presidential election, like the Dominican Republic and Honduras have had at times in the past. (I do not generally consider these systems non-presidential just because voters can’t ticket-split between president and congress, although a case could be made for considering them in a distinct class.) On the other hand, defining the president as the head of a winning party list, rather than as a separate candidacy, could be said to be no more separate origin than we have in Botswana and South Africa (cases I consider unequivocally parliamentary). What is unclear to me is what happens in Guyana if the plurality list in the parliamentary election is opposed by a multiparty post-electoral majority in parliament. Is the head of the plurality list still president? It seems so. Yet Art. 106 implies such a leader would not remain in office.

It is thus unclear how this case should be classified, and I think I have tended to ignore it in the past. Now that I am planning no longer to ignore it, I need to decide if it is “parliamentary” or “hybrid.” There might be a case to be made that this is just a parliamentary system where the leader’s election only appears direct and separate. Or it could be that it is a hybrid of separate election but parliamentary-style fused survival through the no-confidence mechanism in Art. 106.

I should note that there is a constitutional office of Prime Minister, so unlike in Botswana or South Africa it might be odd to say that the “President” is really a prime minister on account of being dependent on parliamentary-majority confidence. However, the PM is clearly a subordinate appointee of the president (and also serves as Vice President, and the President may appoint others to be Vice Presidents as well). So I would not let this quirk determine which executive-type box I put the case in.

As for the country’s electoral system, it appears to be a straightforward case of two-tier PR. There are both regional multi-seat districts and a nationwide PR tier, and it seems there is full compensatory allocation. (See constitutional article 160 or the election results at Psephos.) This would make it one of the few two-tier PR systems outside of Europe (leaving aside the question of whether MMP–found in New Zealand, Lesotho, and Bolivia–is a sub-type of two-tier PR or not). Thus the case is valuable for my goal of maximum coverage of both simple and two-tier PR around the world. (For instance, my recent queries about small dependent territories and free-list systems, and ongoing efforts to make sense of remainder-pooling systems.)

But does Guyana have a parliamentary system, some sort of parliamentarized hybrid presidential system, or an elected prime-ministerial system?

13 thoughts on “The political system of Guyana

  1. I’ve often thought about this before. The basic answer to most of your questions is: “yes”. (neighbouring Suriname also defies easy classification, but less interestingly so).

    All I can add is that this is my best evidence that the fused PM-assembly vote I’ve suggested for Israel in the past (just an idea, not necessarily my current or past preference) would NOT be so similar to Israel’s elected PM system from the 90’s. Guyana has a pretty proportional system, but if people want to vote based on the presidential candidate (and I’m confident that they often do), people are driven to vote for a party likely to win a plurality. The result? A party system which usually comes very close to a pure two-party system. I’m not saying the same would happen in Israel, but it at least suggests a similar system would mean less fragmentation.

    • The fused vote version remains on the table in Israel. I’ve been skeptical, but I think what you say is probably correct.

      To be clear, the proposals I have seen in recent years in Israel would be “automatic PM” to the plurality list’s head. That is almost precisely the Guyana formula. These proposals also have an explicit statement that a parliamentary majority opposed to the plurality party could “constructively” choose someone else as soon as the Knesset sits for the first time. But the presumption would be the plurality gets to be PM till a majority proves otherwise.

      I am skeptical given Israel’s pre-existing party system that it would have much impact, but it is surely an improvement over having a direct majority-runoff election for PM with split-ticket voting allowed (as was the case in Israel during the 1996-2001 period).

    • By the way, I also have puzzled over Suriname. Now that I am planning to add its elections to my dataset, I should probably make sure that the country is consistent with my preferred set of executive arrangements for the sample.

      I can’t remember if I ever came to a conclusion about what its executive type should be conceptualized as.

      • Total aside, but I love this provision in the Suriname constitution. Article 2.1: “Suriname consists of the territory on the South American continent, which has been defined as such.”

  2. Certainly in practice Guyana seems to have resembled a parliamentary system. I don’t know if that’s necessarily an inherent feature, though. It is possible for a situation to arise in which a parliamentary election produces a President with only minority support in Parliament (as seems to have happened in 2011). The opposition parties could then decide to form a government excluding the President’s party, leading to a situation of cohabitation (since the ‘government’ could not remove the Prime Minister).

    I’m not sure how much weight to put on the constitutional provisions which seemingly put the Prime Minister in a position of subordination. Of course, older Commonwealth constitutions (particularly Australia’s) put substantial power in a head of state which is then limited by convention. But Guyana might be different. I’ve recently listened to oral argument from the Caribbean Court of Justice’s 2019 hearing of the case in which the government challenged its defeat, and it was argued that a number of traditional Westminister conventions were extinguished by the enactment of the Constitution. Hybrid classification seems like the only reasonable way to classify the country in the absence of clear convention that would put the President clearly in the drivers’ seat with regard to appointment of a Prime Minister.

    • Good points, Henry. It may function as if parliamentary most of the time, but leave open the door for a more “presidentialized” outcome. The fact that two parties dominate probably contributes to its being more “parliamentary” in practice than it might otherwise be–there is not much of a parliamentary basis on which an alternative coalition might form.

      But I wonder, how could there be cohabitation? If the majority prefers a different prime minister and cabinet from what its elected head wants, it has the means to remove the “president.” However, I take it that they can’t replace the president without calling an election, unlike in a more genuine parliamentary format. This latter fact may be what clinches the “hybrid” classification for me. In fact, I think I can now answer my own question–there could be a situation where the majority can force an alternative government but neither side wants an early election. It strikes me as unlikely, but perhaps possible under these rules.

      There is also the fact that it took over a year to get the early election after the 2018 vote of no-confidence. That seems to have been due to a prolonged court challenge. Maybe the precedent is now set and in future the election would come within the three months stipulated by the constitution (if I recall the provision correctly).

      • Not only do they have the means to remove the President, but as you showed above, the President must resign in case of a successful no-confidence vote against the government. So unless the government resigns of its own accord (not impossible), I don’t see a path to cohabitation in Guyana.

        To my understanding, Suriname is a kind of assembly-independent system, only the president is often elected not by the assembly, where a 2/3 majority is needed, but in a second round by an electoral college made up of the National Assembly plus local councillors.

        I saw some news reports recently that some opposition leaders who had been involved in the writing of Suriname’s 1987 constitution have claimed that it was supposed to be a paliamentary constitution (the confidence provision being implied rather than explicit). Given that this claim was convenient to their attempt to make the government resign through a no-confidence vote, and that I have been unable to find a copy Suriname’s first (1975) constitution, which might help back up that claim, I don’t know whether or not to believe them. Other sources I’ve seen seemed pretty clear that the 1987 constitution was a shift away from parliamentarism, and not an ‘accidental’ one.

      • Yes, cohabitation seems very unlikely. While the president must resign, it seems there is no way to replace the president without an election. That is, parliament does not have a “constructive” vote, just a negative one. I suppose it is imaginable that an assembly majority could use the threat of a no-confidence vote to force the president to appoint a cabinet to the former’s liking. But that may be a stretch.

      • My assumption is that the path to cohabitation would involve the President appointing an opposition cabinet on his own accord with the confidence vote procedure serving exclusively as a threat, yes. I don’t know if this is politically plausible, but it seems clearly constitutionally possible.

    • The Grainger government made the argument in the CCJ that Westminster conventions didn’t apply to Guyana, but my understanding was that the court rejected those arguments. They (the Grainger government, not the CCJ) then proceeded to (unsuccessfully) attempt to rig the 2020 elections after the fact in probably the most brazen, public, and ham-fisted manner I’ve ever seen, so I’m not sure I’d put too much stock in their arguments about what is constitutional convention and what isn’t in Guyana.

      I do think Guyana is interesting as a two-tier system in that the national tier consists of almost 60% of the total seats, but is allocated second after the regional tier. Is there any other system where a larger national tier is the secondary allocation?

      • Yeah, I don’t know that the Granger government’s arguments were necessarily true, but I brought them up just to demonstrate that there is a fair bit of constitutional convention in Guyana that has remained largely unexplored owing to the country’s political circumstances.

      • According to the dataset I am working with, Guyana is in rare company. The only other example of 60% or more of seats being in a compensatory tier would be Austria since 2008 (60.7% in 2008, 66% in 2013). Germany as of 2021 comes close, at 59.4%.

        We could say that Guyana is in a league of its own, because its large compensatory tier is of fixed size, whereas Austria’s is variable on how many seats are allocated in the remainder pool and Germany’s expands beyond its fixed minimum as a result of the current requirement for “full” compensation of overhangs.

  3. That was my tentative conclusion, too: Suriname seems assembly-independent. The constitution says the president is “responsible” to the parliament, but in the absence of any provisions detailing confidence vote procedures I would doubt that makes it parliamentary. The possibility of election by by an electoral college that includes more than the national assembly is a complication, but probably does not change my inclination to call it assembly-independent. It certainly does not make it more presidential, given the electoral college’s additional members are themselves elected officials.

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