Ending extreme poverty would top my agenda- Ramkarran

Convinced that he is fully qualified to be the PPP’s presidential candidate at next year’s general elections, Speaker of the House Ralph Ramkarran says eliminating extreme poverty would top his agenda if he were eventually elected into office.

Ralph Ramkarran

At a labour conference last week, Ramkarran publicly declared his interest in serving as the governing party’s presidential candidate, announcing that with the support of workers he could lead the country to greater heights. “I think I am fully qualified,” he told Stabroek News in an interview on Thursday, explaining that he believes he has the requisite experience from serving the party and learning from its past leaders like the late Dr Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan. In addition to serving as Speaker of the National Assembly over the last decade, Ramkarran has also been a member of the PPP’s leadership since 1974 and an active member in its programmes. “What I have never done is to seek publicity,” he noted.

While Ramkarran indicated the party manifesto would reflect its agenda over the next term, he said if he is selected as the candidate he would seek to ensure there is emphasis on development of Amerindian communities, infrastructure and alternative power, continuing what has already started by past administrations. At the same time, he also stressed the importance of addressing serious social problems. “The first thing I would do is to consider the possibility of eliminating extreme poverty in Guyana within my first term,” he said. “[It] would mean that no child will go to bed saying ‘Mommy, I’m hungry,’ no senior person would be forced to live on the street if he or she does not want to.”

According to him, despite the advances that have been made, there remain tremendous social problems that require creative responses. He said, “In my Guyana, the ruling class would be children and senior citizens and their interests will take priority.” Ramkarran has previously spoken out on violence against women, criticising the judiciary for lenient sentencing while saying that state agencies need to actively seek out cases since women make reports but don’t follow through with prosecution. He further noted that a whole range of issues, including alcoholism and poverty, would have to be addressed to properly deal with the situation that currently exists.

In addition, Ramkarran thinks that violence towards children, including both physical and sexual, is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. As an immediate solution, he advocates the complete abolition of corporal punishment. “That is not going to stop the violence but it sends the message,” he said, while noting that the last time the issue of abolishing corporal punishment in schools was under debate it attracted tremendous opposition. “There was support for what they called moderate violence towards children to correct bad behaviour and I believe that a majority of the Guyanese people support that position,” he noted. “But I don’t think a government should pander to something that is totally wrong. And it is totally and absolutely wrong to inflict violence of any sort on a child… and the government must lead the way in the complete abolition of corporal punishment in schools.”
Crime and corruption
Ramkarran stressed that the government’s ability to address some areas has been impeded by a lack of resources but he also noted the need to look forward rather than only backward.

Asked whether he was satisfied with the administration’s response to crime and corruption, he drew attention to the challenges faced by the government and the people. He cited “intense criminal terrorism,” in Guyana in the decade following the 1997 general elections, saying that the ensuing challenges stalled reforms that could have been implemented. “[They] had to take a backseat and give way to the effort to curb this crime wave,” he said. “That having been said, the efforts at reforms could have been faster,” he added, citing as an example the implementation of the recommendations of the Disciplined Forces Commission, which was conceived as an initiative to reform those institutions.

Nevertheless, he noted that in the context of available resources, the government has poured a tremendous amount of money into fighting crime. He added that while it has not been enough, the government, like every other in the region with less border space, is unable to patrol its borders effectively enough to prevent the inflow and outflow of drugs, which brings a great deal of criminal activity.

Ramkarran reiterated the call by the region for more resources from the US to deal with the situation, while also noting the need for public participation in crime fighting.

He also said that he has frequently called attention to the need to deal with transparency in a structural way. In this regard, he said the Public Procurement Commission needs to be established and Freedom of Information legislation needs to be enacted, in keeping with promises made by the government. He said he was disappointed that neither has been done.

At the same time, Ramkarran sought to contextualise the perception of increased corruption, noting that with expenditure increasing since the party came into office in 1992, an inevitable consequence is increased attempts at corruption. However, he added that he did not necessarily believe there is more corruption now. On the contrary, he suggested that with the functioning of an independent Auditor General’s office, the Public Accounts Committee and a free and independent press, there are more reports and as a result more public complaints about corrupt activity. “Now, I think that my own personal position is that I along with my colleagues in the Constitution Reform Commission took steps to deal with the issue,” Ramkarran said, noting that it was that body that proposed the Public Procurement Commission and freed the Auditor General from the shackles of the Ministry of Finance, creating an independent office. “So, my conscience is clear in the sense that I did what is in my powers to do to deal with corruption. The rest is for the government to do. If the perception is that the government is not moving as fast as it should, the government has to answer,” he added.
Choosing a candidate
The selection of the candidate would be made following a process that is in line with how the party makes all other important decisions, including choosing its last two presidential candidates. The Executive Committee is expected to recommend a candidate, either by consensus or a vote, to the Central Committee, which would have the final say. On previous occasions, the Central Committee, which has 35-voting members, adopted the recommendation of the Executive Committee.

MP Moses Nagamootoo, who has also declared his interest in being the party’s candidate, has recently stated that the process should involve all the party’s membership. He said that a system needed to be put in place where potential candidates could declare their interest and their availability and submit data that could be circulated to the party members.

Asked whether the party ought to adopt a “one man, one vote” system to select its candidate, Ramkarran reiterated that the process was devised bt members of the party. “We have devised a system of internal democracy which we the members of the PPP accept,” he explained. He said that while he appreciated that with the PPP being a major political party, members of the public have concerns and interests in how it exercises democracy internally, the party chooses at congress to elect the Central Committee to make all decisions in its interest. “…All our officers are elected by the Central Committee, including the General Secretary. Now, the presidential candidate is not higher than the General Secretary. The General Secretary is the highest office in the PPP. So how can you argue that it is okay to elect your General Secretary by the members of the Central Committee but it’s not okay to select your presidential candidate? I don’t understand the logic of that argument,” he emphasised.

Ramkarran did, however, note that the issue should have been raised by way of resolution at the party’s last congress, particularly since candidate selection was in the air. He added that it was his personal view that the party’s constitution needs to be reviewed, to examine whether such procedures are still suitable. “This is normal; reviewing of rules is a normal thing. But until such time, we can’t, in the middle of a pending process, change course — it is going to create chaos in our party,” he said. “I respect Moses, I understand what Moses is saying [and] his view may well be correct but that is for the future,” he added.

He was less certain about whether the party would change its Marxist/Leninist ideology if such a review of its constitution is undertaken. Ramkarran explained that it might, however, change the manner in which it is presented, noting that its ideology leads people to accuse the party of adhering to Stalinist ideals. “While I don’t expect its ideological orientation to change, it can be presented in a manner and language that reflects current realities more,” he said, noting that there is room for expansion having regard to the PPP/Civic administration. In this regard, he noted that party founder/leader, the late President Cheddi Jagan had said that the PPP/Civic would not advocate socialism, while the Civic component would not criticise socialism. Further, he said while the party leaders have come out of that period, most are forward looking and understand the realities, including the need to change. However, he noted that reviewing the party constitution is not a matter of urgency. “The only people who worry about the party constitution are people who are not in the party,” he observed.

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