OPINION: Prisoner’s Dilemma and a call to extend and reform

Last Updated on Friday, 12 July 2019, 18:35 by Writer

Guyana’s political establishment is faced with a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

By Terrence R. Blackman (PhD) and Thomas B. Singh (PhD)

July 11, 2019

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a well-known concept in modern game theory. It is a paradox in decision analysis in which two players, each acting in her own self-interest, will fail to produce the optimal outcome. 

The classic prisoner’s dilemma is as follows: two bank robbers, Bernard and Bisram, have been arrested and are being interrogated in separate rooms. The authorities have no other witnesses and can only prove the case against them if they can convince at least one of them to betray the other and testify to the crime. 

Bernard and Bisram are faced with the choices: 

  1. cooperate with each other and remain silent; or 
  2. defect and testify for the prosecution. 

If they both cooperate with each other and remain silent, then the authorities will only be able to convict them on a lesser charge of loitering, which will mean one year in jail each.

If Bernard testifies and Bisram does not, Bernard will go free and Bisram will get three years and vice versa.

If they both testify against each other, they will each get two years in jail for being partly responsible for the robbery.

Observe, the game is configured in such a manner as to induce both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process. 

We believe that the current Guyanese political environment is a game akin to the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is a game, configured by our socio-economic and political history, that induces either the PPP or the Coalition to choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other and as a result creating a less than optimal solution for Guyana as a whole. 

Playing this game with unchanged rules will guarantee the same political outcomes unless political players change their behaviour. Elections will be held; a party will be declared the winner; the loser will reject the outcome; (if we are lucky) there will be an elections petition; if there is a majority winner, budgets will be passed after debates; and there may even be another no-confidence vote. Alternatively, with a plurality winner and an elections petition by the loser, we’d have a “minority” government. With unchanged rules, we inevitably return to the CCJ.

Add to this mix the infusion of large oil revenues and we will be well on our way to Dickens’ “worst of times, age of foolishness, [and] epoch of incredulity”. With more to spend than we did as the fastest growing economy in the region, fiscal profligacy is likely to follow from the current rules of engagement that do little to limit borrowing and the size of budget deficits.

This statement is aimed at highlighting the fact that, this moment, most fortuitously, provides an opportunity for the major political parties to change the rules of engagement. 

With the same two-thirds majority that is required to extend the time for government to remain in office and hold elections, the National Assembly can change the Articles listed in (b) of Article 164. To reiterate: The parties can go back to the National Assembly to extend the time for the government to “remain in office and hold elections” and with this same two-thirds majority the National Assembly can effect constitutional reform, i.e., change the Articles listed in (b) of Article 164.

[While we concede that the probability of the major political parties changing their behaviour and putting the national interest ahead of their partisan interests is small, we believe that this very (partisan) behaviour can be a powerful motivation that can be harnessed for the good of the nation if the rules of the game can be changed so as to align partisan interests with the national interest. Were this to happen, the same two political parties that cannot now agree on anything that matters significantly to Guyana, would be able to cooperate and work together for the greater good of Guyana, and to use the final and the best opportunity for Guyana to achieve instead “the best of times, the age of wisdom [and] the epoch of belief” in ourselves as a country that can free itself from the triumph of partisan interests over the national good.]

Elinor Ostrom, Economics Nobel Prize winning political scientist, explained how communities have, for centuries, invented collective agreements that solve “social dilemma” problems where individual interests frustrated the collective good. In such dilemmas, what is needed is for the parties to have a common commitment to rules of engagement that preserve and promote the collective good, even as they continue to pursue their partisan interests.

Ostrom notes that “Trust and reciprocity are mutually reinforcing. A decrease in either can generate a downward cascade leading to little or no cooperation.” But while the citizens of this incredible country cannot hope that the two major political parties would trust each other, we can assure them that when they commit to the national interest they will see the benefits to their constituents, to all of us and even to themselves of working together particularly at this time, on the cusp of becoming an oil producing country. Then trust will grow and Guyana will have the bright future that will otherwise elude us if each of the parties sought to go it alone, as they now seem bent on doing.

While we might have ideas on the particular reforms to which the parties must commit – from changing the electoral system to make it a semi-proportional one or allowing the formation of post-elections coalitions, to changing the arrantly political composition of the Board of GECOM and even reducing Presidential immunities – we believe that a good outcome will result from the parties themselves putting on the negotiating table constitutional reforms they are willing to undertake in the national interest. In the negotiations about the content of the reforms that will be taken to the National Assembly however involve a pledge that each party will only agree to a reform if the other party reciprocally pledges to vote for it in the National Assembly. Otherwise, they will simply agree to the “lowest common denominator” commitment to say allow dual citizens to be Members of Parliament. The reforms that are agreed upon will then be taken to the National Assembly along with a motion to extend the time for government to remain in office and hold elections, in an “extend and reform” motion. It is essential of course that there be only one motion to take to the National Assembly. 

We believe that APNU and the PPP/C must use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which might in fact be the last opportunity we have, to undertake meaningful constitutional reforms in the greater national interest. The parties are reminded that their decisions in this regard also represent Guyana’s best opportunity to avoid the Resource Curse that inexorably and implacably awaits us if the rules governing their engagement remain unchanged. 

The overwhelming majority of Guyanese have placed their confidence in these two parties, taken together, to govern in their best interests. Their failure to work together in the national interest could lead to a very harsh judgement at the upcoming polls against any of them that separately chooses not to seize this opportunity, if the other is willing to put the prospects we have as a nation ahead of their partisan prospects at those polls.

We urge the two major parties to adopt this “Extend and Reform” proposal. In so doing they will be effectively joining with all other Guyanese in singing our national song, “Let us cooperate for Guyana.”

This is the verbatim language in Article 106 (7) of the Constitution. Remaining in office is tied to the holding of elections. This opinion piece is based on an idea presented in “Global Carbon Pricing— We Will If You Will” by Peter Cramton, David J.C. MacKay, Axel Ockenfels, and Steven Stoft and available at

Dr Thomas Singh is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Guyana. Dr Terrence Blackman is Dean of the School of Science, Health and Technology at Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York.