Political rivalries and the national interest

On Tuesday January 22, during an event held to mark the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, US Ambassador Brent Hardt alluded to the success which the American political process has enjoyed in setting aside partisan political rivalries and collectively embracing the national interest. It was hardly a chance remark, made as it was in the presence of a gathering of prominent local political and private sector leaders including Prime Minister Samuel Hinds. Nor would it have been lost on the assembly of Guyanese officials that the US Ambassador had chosen to use the opportunity of an important American event of state – the inauguration of the President − to allude to the preeminence of national interest over political rivalries. No shortcoming, of course, has more disfigured our own political culture.

The symbolism of the Ambassador’s pronouncements could hardly have been more poignant. “The inauguration of a President after a hard-fought electoral contest reflects the strength of a democracy,” is what Mr Hardt had to say. The strength of that democracy has perhaps been in evidence to a far greater extent in recent years given the greater sharpness of the political divisions associated with the election of the country’s first black President. For all this, the Ambassador said, Americans have managed “to transcend their fears and forge compromises in the nation interest… reach[ing] out across those differences and identify[ing] the national interests that supersede the partisan.”

Ambassador Hardt’s remarks have passed without too much public or political comment, though, if the truth be told, what he had to say would have served, at least for some of us, as a reminder of the permanent fault lines in our own political behaviour that continue to retard our development and hold us in a condition of either conflict or worry associated with our fears of the worst. This has been our condition for well over half a century and our political leaders, for all the glibness of their pronouncements about ‘the national interest,’ have failed to provide one iota of assurance that as a nation we can ‘pull together.’ The truth is that they have been ill-equipped to provide such assurances.

If we must hope that what Ambassador Hardt had to say might, somehow, help to kindle a new, sincere and constructive discourse on this vexed question of national unity, history and our instincts provide little reason for optimism. Truth be told, our political leaders know little beyond what they have inherited… a slavish devotion to entrenched party political loyalties manifested in unyielding positions. What the US Ambassador had to say would probably have had sorry littler traction in the circumstances.

In America’s case, the Ambassador said, “the inauguration of a President after a hard-fought electoral contest reflects the strength and health of a democracy.” In our case the inauguration of a President (after a conflict-laden and invariably bitterly controversial electoral process) is a brief, hastily planned, low-key, purely functional event.

It customarily lacks even the remotest semblance of a bipartisan national celebration and invariably proceeds in the shadow of raging national controversy over the results of the preceding poll. Attendance is usually confined (mostly) to those who have partisan reason to celebrate the inauguration. Characterized as it is by postures of triumphalism and brooding in opposing political camps the inauguration of a new president here in Guyana reflects the curse of a national political culture that understands only how to put partisan rivalries first. The event itself comes and goes quickly for fear that elaborateness may give rise to ugly reactions.

The message that Ambassador Hardt choose to deliver on America’s Inauguration Day is that an important barometer for measuring democracy is the capacity of a country’s political leadership to embrace the national interest ahead of partisan interests; and that, of course, is a test that we have failed continually over the years. Much of the reason has to do with the fact that the interests of our politics have remained far too intertwined with partisan political considerations that feed off national divisiveness. In the circumstances they can hardly be relied upon to truly embrace and govern in the national interest.

The curse of partisan political interests has left us in an inhospitable holding area of national uncertainty. It offers an altogether misleading semblance of national normalcy to which increasing numbers of Guyanese no longer subscribe.  Instead, there appears to exist increasing anxieties about what lies ahead.

Meanwhile, official pronouncements about growth and development continue to be premised on the simplistic assumption that such virtues can be wrested from a national condition of political feuding, narrow rivalries and an absence of confidence in the abilities of our leaders across the political spectrum to improve the quality of our political behaviour to a point where we can at least begin to contemplate a national interest that supersedes the largely race-based divisiveness to which we subscribe.

What, perhaps, is most to be regretted is that we may have by now become so set in our ways that what Ambassador Hardt had to say about setting aside rivalries in the national interest may well have already become a distant memory.

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