Negotiation is not a ‘casino-type’ activity

The Stabroek News, quoting GINA, reported that in response to the statement by Opposition Leader, David Granger “that he is ready for Government to seek a supplementary budget provided that certain conditions are met, President Ramotar said that he is not running a `casino-type’ operation and maintains that all decisions will be based solely on what is in the best interest of Guyana and its people.” (“Gov’t to uphold APNU pacts – Ramotar:” SN: 30/04/2012). During his May Day presentation at the National Park, the president again returned to this most unfortunate analogy, which suggests that he either believes it or thinks it is believable.

Negotiating will become more and more important as we go forward and it does not improve our knowledge, learning or capacity to participate for the president to be equating negotiation with “casino-type” operations. Secondly, the president spoke as if the government is the sole repository of what constitutes the public interest and this has serious implications for the consultation/negotiation process.

Negotiating is not gambling. No one goes into a negotiation if they have a better alternative and no one stays in a negotiation if the outcome is likely to make them worse off. Good negotiators seek to build value and create win-win situations that can lead to lasting productive relationships. To succeed in doing so, one must have a good knowledge of the theory and practice of the negotiation process and be adequately prepared as to specific situations.

The president should seek other alternatives to negotiation with the opposition if after considering at least the following questions, he foresees negative outcomes. What political path is in the best interest of Guyana today? What are the PPP/C’s constituency interests and what alternatives does it have? What are the opposition’s constituency interests and alternatives? Is there some alternative that could satisfy all sides and the national interest? If the PPP/C decides to collaborate how is it likely to fare?

Regardless of how rudimentary, I suspect that the PPP/C has done such an analysis and concluded that at this stage negotiation is its best alternative. In the best of times, political negotiations in competitive democracies are difficult: one only needs to look at what regularly takes place in the Congress of the United States to realise that in our severely divided polity the situation is likely to be worse. Nonetheless, it is today an inevitable path and perhaps we should try to utilise some of the insights of experts in the process.

Asked by the National Journal how he would grade the negotiation skills of the US Congress, Professor Robert Bordone gave an explanation that resonates well in Guyana today: “This probably won’t surprise you or anybody, but I would give them a really bad grade. Basically, it seems to me that both sides are engaged in a classic game of chicken where they head on a collision course and look for who’s going to swerve first.  It’s stunningly childlike. While these are tough issues where the parties have genuine differences, the truth of the matter is there’s probably a lot more shared ground than there seems to be and relatively little effort to find [it].”

Elsewhere, Professor Robert Bordone gave the following advice, which it would not hurt our politicians to note. He said that the classic image of a good negotiator is that of a tough bargainer who takes a hard position and wants to claim value for his side but although that is one way of thinking about negotiations, “really good negotiators look at a pie that’s worth 20 points, often they’re able to make 40, 60, or 100 points out of it.”

According to Bordone, the kind of  backbiting and quarrels we have been witnessing  recently would make it very difficult to build the  good working relationship all our politicians claim is necessary if we are to progress. “Each time you push the negotiation to its deadline and play a game of brinkmanship, even if you reach a deal, the one thing that seems to be worse off is the relationship and the ability of the parties to work together another time. One of the ways we talk about a good outcome is that you get a deal that’s good for you or your position, but you also get a deal that works for the other side. You develop a relationship whereby you can work with the other side.”

He claimed that business people are better at negotiations kkbecause they want to make a deal and thus are more creative in doing so. Unlike political negotiations, business bargaining is also not conducted in the public glare. “I don’t think you find any negotiation expert who will tell you, if you want to reach a negotiation, bring everyone into a giant room and let all of the cameras in there.”

the current political context, more than ever before, politicians on all sides will attempt to convince us that they are acting in the public and thus our interest. As the president was suggesting that the budget cuts were against the public interest, Mr. Granger, quite independently, was reported as claiming the opposite. In the final analysis, it is the government that usually determines what is in the public interest but whether it makes that determination alone or collaboratively depends upon the level of control it has over the governmental process.

Where Westminster-type systems do not result in a single party majority government, minority government or coalition governments are established. In either of the two last cases, no single party is in a position to operationally define what constitutes the public interest: it has to be negotiated as was and is the case with the present United Kingdom government. Presidential systems, such as in the USA, are even more collaborative. It would be an unwise president who would seek to define the public interest on any major issue without seriously consulting all the congressional parties.

That there is a general deficit in our appreciation of the need for and nature of the negotiation process is the only reason why, in relation to the recent choice of an opposition representative to the Guyana Elections Commission, the AFC could have reported that: “Prior to the announcement by Mr. Granger that Ms. Jones was a candidate, we were unaware of her consideration as a candidate.” And also why our president and his party could seek to equate negotiations with “casino-type” behaviour and appear to harbour the belief that, even in their minority state, they have the sole prerogative to determine the public interest.

Government or opposition: modern democratic practice requires all-round meaningful discussions which give all stakeholders the opportunity to define and manage those processes that fundamentally affect the possibility of their living the “good life.”

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