Political parties should choose leaders who are able to build bridges across communities

Dear Editor,

The verbal skirmish in Cancun (‘Jagdeo complains in front of Norway PM that forest funds still unavailable’ (SN, December 9)  has provided commentators and bloggers with a nice little pre-Christmas present and much has already been said and written about the president’s un-presidential behaviour. Many claim to be shaking their heads in wonder, if not bowing them in shame (‘Blunt but inappropriate talk’ SN, Dec12), and it cannot be denied that the President’s outbursts on this and other occasions have done little to enhance respect for him or his office. But this is neither the whole nor the most important aspect of the matter. The truth is that divided countries like Guyana are citadels of what we might call diminished presidencies; our history is replete with significant groups seeking refuge in the dichotomy between the presidency and the person holding that office; claiming to respect the former but not the latter.

With the possible exception of Cheddi Jagan’s final term, at the inception of every presidency, a significant section of the population has been irreconcilable to the incumbent and presidential lapses have served to exacerbate the lack of acceptance.  The PNC era was a time of geopolitical and electoral manipulations and the significant East Indian opprobrium for the presidency and the incumbents is well known, understandable and should not detain us. The return of free and fair elections (democracy in some parlance) was expected to mitigate this problem, but this expectation has been proved false; ‘democracy’ has been incapable of providing the level of legitimacy and thus development that was expected of it.

Notwithstanding the general Afro-Guyanese dislike for the PPP, Cheddi Jagan was able to create some multi-racial space for himself. Many factors accounted for this, including his commitment to social equality and a discursive approach that allowed for a give and take, which gave rise to the impression that reason would ultimately prevail. However, I also believe that the Afro-Guyanese perception of Janet Jagan as the evil genius of the PPP deflected most of the blame from him.  We are born into a culture that consistently juxtaposes good against evil and whether by accident or design, Cheddi and Janet constituted one of the most successful ‘good cop, bad cop’ teams. The question that must remain unanswered is whether, had he lived, Cheddi Jagan would have recognised the need for a more inclusive management arrangement, and if he did not, would that multi-racial space he helped to create have evaporated?

Mr Samuel Hinds became president in circumstances that made it impossible for him to build upon Cheddi Jagan’s legacy.  The manoeuvres that brought him to and removed him from office increased the negative image of the presidency, the PPP/C and the Indian community in the minds of Afro-Guyanese.  So far as the latter were concerned, here was a decent, relatively competent Afro-Guyanese individual who was thrown into and out of the presidency for entirely racial reasons.   I have often tried to explain that such was not the case; that Mr Hinds was part of the Civic and that, as I understand it, the Civic had agreed with the PPP that the presidency would go to the latter. That agreement was made with the present constitution in place so it would be wrong to attempt to utilise it to renege on the agreement.  However, so far as many people were and still are concerned, the mere fact that such an agreement existed was/is sufficient proof of PPP/Indian machinations.

Janet Jagan’s actions, such as dismissively publicly discarding an Order of Court during her inauguration, and/or the later vitiation of her presidency, certainly did not enhance respect for her or the office.  She was, however, as already stated, the object of opposition/communal resentment long before she became president. While loved by rural Indians, she was intensely disliked by Afro-Guyanese and when she was made fully aware of the depth and extent of this dislike, she resigned.

The current president was relatively new, little known and without any significant track record. This might have been viewed as an advantage in that he was somewhat protected from accusations of racism and poor past performance. His lack of a constituency may also have been useful to the party hierarchy, but these ‘advantages’ also meant that he did not have the credentials or the policy space to seriously mitigate the effects of the millstone of a  divided society that was placed round his neck. When added to his propensity to be quarrelsome, these factors did little to make him appear presidential, or more importantly, to help with communal integration and development.

Political parties are formed to win elections and usually to attempt to improve the life opportunities of all the electorate.  As we have seen, the most important element in the diminution of respect for any given president is communal distrust, which is a recognised and important obstacle to development. In normal conditions, whatever their prospects at elections, it is important that political parties choose leaders who are most able to build bridges across communities. In abnormal conditions such as ours, this is not merely important but a vital necessity.  Given the status quo, such an approach may not allow for optimal development but it will provide better developmental space. What Guyana really needs to extricate itself from the present rot are new, radically inclusive, governmental arrangements.

I have argued before that with proper conceptualisation and execution, a united opposition has a chance of winning an outright victory at the next elections (‘Thus far the coastlanders have had all the chances; let’s give the original people a try’ SN, April 30, 2010). Although perhaps less so in bi-communal societies, parties usually lose support after lengthy periods in office.

Therefore, quite apart from the general need to choose leaders who could build bridges across communities, in our specific constitutional and dominant party situation, where opposition votes must be viewed in totality and the numbers are closely matched, opposition parties have additional reasons for choosing candidates with an eye to the constituencies of the ruling group and to avoid like the plague candidates who could constitute a lightning rod for ruling party vilification and mobilisation.  

Yours faithfully,
Henry B Jeffrey