Thursday, January 26, 2006


Consensus Politics vital to Guyana's stability

(by Dr. C. A. Johnson)

With General Elections imminent this year in Guyana, debate on the country’s future of the country is at fever pitch. At times, Guyana’s politics has bordered on the theatrical, melodramatic and retrogressive, but despite the antagonism which is understandably historic in nature, Guyanese from all walks of life now have the opportunity to `grasp the nettle’. The survival of nation states depends hugely on their ability and capacity to resolve internal differences while having to negotiate difficult terrain of external pressures of one type or another. These opposites demand tactfulness, not posturing and ridicule. For all intents and purposes, Guyana’s case is crucial, but soluble.

To compete in global power politics, Guyana should recognise the destructive nature of partisan politics since its weak bargaining position, financially, does not offer much scope in the world economy if internal divisions are overzealously propagated because of sectional interests on either side of the political divide. The implied suggestion of tacit acceptance to Western diktats however, is unacceptable since it violates the sovereignty of Guyana. Moreover it is vital that the gains of Political Independence and Republican status are not squandered or unwittingly undermined by the paralysis of ideological contestation and ethnic discontent.

The country needs a huge investment of change management capital to alleviate inequities created by the appropriation of British and US Republican-styles of governance rulebook. For nearly half a century this twin-approach has proven fractious to the democratic traditions that Guyana has been trying to galvanise since the mid-1980s.

Discussions on Guyana’s future have been implicated by the seepage of `blame politics’ and `ideological deviance’, allied to Western persuasions of `divide and rule’, `divide and conquer’. To the casual observer, these attitudes are invariably, embedded in the psyche of Guyanese societies everywhere, especially when a constructive agenda is being advocated and it is also prevalent on issues dealing with the process of regional integration in the Caribbean.

Historic Dilemma

What is more, past Administrations in Guyana have been vilified for countless sins of `omission’ and `commission’ even in cases where consensus was evident on key national priorities – free education, ownership of essential industries, land reforms etc. It is certainly the case that Guyana’s current difficulties are a manifestation of internal and external circumstances some of which are yet to be analysed from informed and objective perspectives.

Yet, if Guyana’s political leadership were to be examined in some measure, the main point of reference will be the management styles of its leaders, a critical element in any type of governance system. It acts as barometer in redefining Guyana’s self-styled democratic traditions. The Forbes Burnham Administration (1964-1985) was conceived by the attractive socialist experiment, a tool of expediency utilised at a time when developing nations were perceived to be unshackling themselves from colonial-imperial vestiges, whilst steering a path of self-governance. Guyana’s situation was therefore comparable to other emerging independent states – Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and African nations, including Ghana (which became the first African country to gain Political Independence in 1957). Ostensibly, the Indian sub-continent and China had experienced their share of ideological successes ranging from social democracy to a mixed economy (in the case of China, one country three systems and in the case of India, one country two systems or at least so it appeared to outsiders) .

As the politics of opportunism took root, the Burnham Administration was tarred with the brush of autocracy even though this period of enlightenment failed to recognise and consider the Republic’s acute dilemma. Even though Guyana obtained Political Independence from Britain, it inherited a virtual `elective dictatorship’ a rather close semblance of the (British) Westminster model, a fact that is widely quoted by British and European analysts, and one which is less known in the Caribbean. Proportional Representation or `PR’ has been the most controversial system of government since the mid-20th century and Guyana’s almost powerless adherence to its principles is a stumbling block to genuine reform in the democratic institutions of governance – locally and nationally, as the evidence suggests.

The recent debate on the Iraq war in Europe reminded many of us that the `fairness doctrine’ should always be upheld even in the most difficult of circumstances. It was therefore pleasing to observe the swathe of opinions on Proportional Representation and its implications for countries that embrace it. To quote a leading campaigner for modern and fair democracy, “There is only one weighty democratic argument deployed against Proportional Representation in principle. The job of elections is not only to reflect opinions but also to aggregate them so as to make effective decision-taking possible after polling day. A trade-off between fairness and aggregation is therefore essential, particularly if very small minorities are not to wield disproportionate influence because they happen to hold the balance of seats between the larger parties. In reality, this argument mainly applies to the use of PR without a reasonable threshold requirement for gaining seats.” It is known that most countries using PR impose a threshold of at least five per cent — either nationally or within a region — to gain seats. Few fringe parties get over this hurdle, but representation of the larger parties is nonetheless fair, which must be the case for Guyana.

Contrary to the rhetoric, a close study of economic indices at the time, showed that the Burnham Administration had little choice; with Guyana’s small and dwindling population, a narrow economic base, poor returns on exports, limited technology and lack of high-order skills, the choice was either re-colonisation or the pursuance of a national programme of self-reliance. The success of leaders is due, partly to their charisma, integrity, and dedication to the cause, apart from the quality of expert advice and guidance offered by endowed professionals, including political careerists. The issue of whether the advice given to the Burnham Administration (especially in exceptional and pressured circumstances) had to do with traditional Manifesto pledges or broader national interests is a subject that hasn’t attracted much credible analysis in recent times, even though it should be. Instead, his personal excesses have been used to paint a gloomy picture of Guyanese politics to the rest of the world.

Managerial Politics

The Desmond Hoyte Administration (1985-1992) was a mixed bag of ideological realignment and administrative deftness and although criticised for his `partnership with the Burnham legacy’, he infused renewed credibility and faith in the electorate’s political leadership. Elements of change management were apparent with the gradual overhaul of administrative processes and procedures within Central and Local Government authorities. Under his leadership, Hoyte guaranteed Guyana’s position in the universal fraternity of democratic nations. His Administration’s determination to change the national economic culture was also profound - opportunities in non-traditional areas were maximised. Guyanese witnessed a flourishing free media, the proliferation of new and varied literature, innovation and growth in key production and service sectors and the growth of political Parties and movements, as the nation oozed confidence and renewal. A deliberate attempt was made to woo experienced and highly-skilled Guyanese abroad, a move that paid significant dividends.

The Dr. Cheddi Jagan Administration (1992-1997) period of rule was revealing; Guyana was repositioned strategically in the marketplace of ideas and commodity bargaining. Dr. Jagan’s notion of ideology was cleverly contextualised in an atmosphere where the weight of democracy was felt by all, and in a move that defied his critics, he initiated the politics of consensus and accommodation. It was his Administration that demonstrated the mastery of modern statecraft in Guyana, by blending traditional ideology with pragmatic politics (the Civic component is a classic example of realignment politics). In doing so, Dr. Jagan exemplified a compelling case for ethnic unity reinforced by social cohesion and ideological finesse. Such emphases became invaluable coordinates as Guyana punched above her `weight’ at regional and international forums by articulating modern approaches in tackling inequalities affecting the world’s deprived and excluded. Contemporary politics is about compromise and Party leaders concede that the centre ground of politics is far more expedient than adopting rigid `Left’ or Right’ inclinations. Political Parties usually wear each other’s ideological garb and this slick piece of advertising has thrown most electorates into confusion and doubt. Issues on trust, believability and integrity are routinely questioned by experienced and first-time voters in their anxiety to know genuine contenders in the political leadership terrain.

The current Administration led by President Bharat Jagdeo therefore has an imposing challenge; that is, to continue building on the good work of its predecessors. Jagdeo has ennobling qualities of youth, experience, exuberance, affability and patriotic zeal - the kind of repertoire associated with modern political management styles in emerging economies such as Guyana. The reconstruction programme will demand that every Guyanese – home and overseas – pool their skills and talents to find practical solutions to the country’s problems, some of which have been alluded to in these columns.

Politics of Maturity

It will be very interesting to observe whether the `Politics of Maturity’ has finally gripped Guyana as campaigning in General Elections intensify. Firstly, all Parties will have to `up their game’, with leaders demonstrating the capacity and ability to tolerate criticism and not descend into pettiness and vitriol. They must focus on enforcing discipline among the rank and file activists and members alike, using political/voter education as a tool to empower and provide a moral boost for disaffected sections of the electorate.

Secondly, each Party must have a credible Manifesto outlining reform proposals, with leaders setting up appropriate Working Groups to carry out detailed reviews on issues affecting the country and presenting them to the electorate. A major emphasis should be to attract overseas-based Guyanese since there is a pool of untapped, multidisciplinary professionals and experts. Project management and related technical skills are in short supply in Guyana and the continued dependency of non-Guyanese expatriates is gradually depriving the country from some of its finest brains. This policy step should be reversed by all concerned with Guyana’s development thrust.

Thirdly, Parties must have a social agenda that derives strength and vitality from the political and social divide. The time is opportune to dismantle the pervasive ethnic and cultural partition that has weakened Guyana’s dynamic political culture and driven nationals abroad in droves, only to find themselves imperilled by bitter alienation and isolation in so-called `Greener Pastures’, even while enjoying new-found material trappings. An equivocation of national interests rather than cheap Party politics or narrow self-interest, must be the overriding factor in this year’s Elections.

However, since political parties are the ones that form governments in the first place, it might be unwise or even difficult to disassociate Party interests from national priorities. Above all, Parties must define their ideological credentials (no one is advocating that leaders must `nail their flag to the mast’ as it were); they must demonstrate their strategy through practical ideas on enabling Guyana’s prosperity. There must be clarity in all Party Manifestos on Guyana’s relationship with the Caribbean and Latin American Region, as well as the wider international community. Politically, Guyana should not be isolated from global currents.
There is an urgent need to hold Regional Elections to offer citizens the chance to elect the leaders of their choice. Apart from an exercise in democracy, these elections would guarantee the reforms needed to strengthen the hands of representative and participatory democracy by citizens in neighbourhoods, districts, sub-regions and regions as a whole. It is possibly a good idea to have a mandate whereby Regional Elections are held annually and National Primaries held every two years to enable citizens to monitor the effectiveness of Parliamentarians and Councillors in various constituencies in the country. It is a thought worth pursuing in this day and age of change management politics (sic).

Although Guyana has a small population compared to its size and composition, it’s blessed with an abundance of infinite natural resources, and equally, a fertile history of ideas and commodities that the world has valued in some measure. Its future in the 21st century and beyond hinges on the commitment, dedication and will of all Guyanese and Caribbean citizens to ensure that the country pursues the path of harmony and sustainable development.

Indeed, contrary to popular lay and expert opinion, it is unfair to compare Guyana with America, Britain, Europe and other developed parts of the world in terms of financial resources, multinational corporatism, expansive government structures and global militarism. There is much evidence to suggest that Western nations did not earn their superior status ordinarily; most of their gains have been obtained, if not founded, on the practices of commodity protectionist measures, imposition of ideological doctrines and domination of world capital, to name a few. Quintessentially, these virtuous qualities that Guyanese and other Caribbean citizens glamorise or satirise, reflect the inherent contradictions in the global economic system that hearkens lesser nations to be more democratic or else!

For all of its problems – economic and social though – Guyana is still a relatively peaceful country, devoid of civil unrests and ethnic cleansing which are recurring headlines in parts of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Europe. Guyana has a healthy balance of moral and spiritual power and this should be used as force for good. Indeed, the politics of consensus and accommodation will ultimately salvage the Guyanese nation, enabling lasting institutions of political, economic and social governance. Conventionally, governments are the elected representatives of the people and like most things, they come and go. Guyanese of all description and prescription, have the chance to get it right this time, if not, we would have failed our beloved country, especially our children and theirs too.

(This article was first published in The Guyana Gazette and appeared on:

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