Mr Robert Corbin must have been a bit nonplussed when President Jagdeo took his side in his dispute with certain members of his own PNCR. Support from such an unexpected quarter is hardly likely to enhance the Opposition Leader’s standing among his party’s critics, however, leaving aside the fact that the head of state ignored their main criticisms, and misrepresented the one he did home in on. At the very least Mr Jagdeo has now advertised publicly that he would rather deal with Mr Corbin than with any other opposition figure, a less than tactful revelation one might have thought, in circumstances where he is supposedly attempting to encourage inclusiveness.
And it was the subject of inclusiveness, in fact, which caused President Jagdeo to trespass in opposition territory in the first instance. At a news conference on Wednesday, the head of state told the media that his proposal for enhanced co-operation between the political parties which he had made in his inaugural address in September 2006, had fallen victim to the internal struggles of the PNCR. It had “unravelled,” he said, “because of a few people who were campaigning and said that the leader of the opposition was too close to the government and somehow that led to a distancing again.”
It was a less than accurate account of the sequence of events since the proposal was made, and more particularly since the first and only meeting in pursuit of the proposed enhanced framework for political co-operation was held. This meeting took place on November 10, 2006, and early the following year Mr Raphael Trotman of the AFC told this newspaper that on that occasion the President and representatives of the parliamentary opposition parties had identified at least ten issues on which they would work together. The opposition, he said, had undertaken to write a position paper following which they were to meet to work out an agenda to tackle the issues. The task of producing the agenda, he said, had been assigned to Presidential Advisor on Governance Gail Teixeira.
On February 27, 2007, we reported Ms Teixeira as saying that there was a draft agenda which was being vetted, and that it was unlikely that talks would resume before the World Cup. As said above, they never resumed at all – at least not in a form which involved all the opposition parties – although President Jagdeo did meet with Mr Corbin subsequently.
The challenge to Mr Corbin’s leadership from Team Alexander, as it was called, was made at the PNC’s biennial congress in July 2007, and it did not succeed. While there have been numerous calls since then for Mr Corbin to step down, he has remained the undisputed leader of the PNCR-1G, and therefore Leader of the Opposition. In addition, he has shown no sign of being intimidated by his critics, since several of them have been brought before the party’s disciplinary committee, among other things. Furthermore, Mr Jagdeo is hardly in a position to suggest that there has been a “distancing” – presumably he meant with the Leader of the Opposition – when he hasn’t even convened a second meeting of representatives of the parliamentary parties to establish that no further progress could be made. Only if he had done so, and there had been a clear indication that Mr Corbin was not prepared for further co-operation, could he talk about any “distancing” which had stymied the initiative.
In his New Year address, Mr Corbin had renewed his party’s calls for shared governance. In response, President Jagdeo said on Wednesday that trust was a prerequisite for greater collaboration between the parties. “If we can’t even convene a meeting to discuss a framework for enhanced or improved collaboration,” we quoted him as saying, “how can we jump to shared governance?” Despite the inappropriate analogies with other countries which the head of state drew, his point about trust is well taken. However, since the period before the last election, the country has been politically violence-free, so the climate has been good for some time for building trust and, by extension, inclusiveness. So the fact that Mr Jagdeo is making lame excuses for not continuing the political co-operation meetings – and only he can convene them − speaks volumes.
But perhaps this is hardly surprising, since the government has shown no great enthusiasm for meaningful consultation and co-operation at any point during its term of office. It did hold a National Stakeholders Meeting comprising representatives of government, the parliamentary parties and civil society following the slaughter which took place in Lusignan and Bartica early last year, and agreements of varying usefulness were arrived at. But after the crisis had passed, the National Stakeholders Forum was forgotten, the agreements were forgotten, and the government reverted to doing its own thing. Co-operation with any outside entity, it seems, is only for show, and ‘inclusiveness’ is just a word, not a concept to be implemented in practice.
Even where there is a joint task force in existence, as is the case with local government reform, the administration may attempt to circumvent it, as it did last year. Without agreement on reform and consequent legislation in place, local government elections cannot be held. Last year Co-chair of the Local Government Task Force, Mr Clinton Collymore, sent a memo to the President saying that cabinet should decide on reform because the task force (comprising members of the PPP/C and PNCR) had reached deadlock. This was despite the fact that recommendations had been produced, and draft legislation was being awaited from the AG’s chambers, although it was the case that discussion had not been completed (among other things) on the local government commission and the criteria for fiscal transfers from central government to local bodies. It appeared as if Mr Collymore attempted a clumsy manoeuvre to avoid the government having to relinquish control of local authorities under the new legislation. On that occasion Mr Corbin wrote to the President asking for an urgent meeting.
In Parliament, the natural forum for collaboration between the parliamentary parties, the government has also used its built-in majority to push through controversial legislation, in addition to which it declines to consult or compromise on almost every problematic issue where obvious legitimate criticisms have been raised. There have been a number of bills which the combined opposition have asked to be referred to committee, or to be held back for consultations to take place, requests which the government has ignored. Among many others, there was the contentious Wiretapping Bill and most recently last week, the Trades Union Recognition (Amendment) Bill, which caused all the opposition parties to walk out in protest on constitutional grounds.
Speaker of the House, Mr Ralph Ramkarran, has said that nowadays about 50% of bills go to select committee, a vast improvement on earlier days. However, some of the most sensitive bills, such as the last one mentioned above which will have major consequences for the labour movement vis-à-vis the government, should not have been bulldozed through Parliament.
This is not to suggest, of course, that the delays in the appointments to the constitutional commissions, for example, should all be laid at the government’s door; however, in a general sense there is an unmistakeable trend whereby on difficult issues where its control or monopoly is at stake, the government does not give way. It has shown remarkable intransigence, for example, on the matter of the radio monopoly and the issue of independent TV in Linden, and it has now indicated it will appeal the court decision in relation to the last-named case.
The government has not recognized that there will be no significant development in this country unless autonomous institutions are allowed to flourish, and unless there is greater inclusiveness in relation to decision-making. Conciliatory rhetoric from the President to the opposition about a “framework of co-operation in which the ideas and views that are sound and positive can become part of an evolving policy environment…” means absolutely nothing if there is no attempt to give it substance.
Last week Human Rights Watch, answering a criticism of its report on Venezuela, said that it believed that promoting more inclusive forms of democracy in Venezuela and throughout the region was a “vital and ambitious aim.” It went on to observe that this aim “cannot be achieved so long as the independence of key democratic institutions, such as the judiciary, the media, organized labour, and civil society, are compromised.” While the situation of Venezuela does not correspond to that of Guyana, nevertheless, the comment is not entirely without relevance here.