Power and the presidency

The Friday before last President Jagdeo gave a news conference at his office during which he told reporters on the matter of reforming the presidency: “There are things I think I would like to see… But I don’t see anything major because… we did the major thing, which was to limit people who sit in this job, unlike any country in the Caribbean.” He then went on to remark, “There are some powers, if you check any president in the world… you will see that the president has those powers largely because of the need to function in the office. So I wouldn’t advocate changing those for a new president because he has to be able to function effectively.” We reported him as then adding, that he would not want to “diminish the tools” available to his successor.

The President, of course, rather glossed over the complexities of the issue as these relate to the local situation, and certainly over-generalised in terms of what he said about other countries. As far as Caricom nations are concerned, only Haiti and Suriname have executive presidencies; all the anglophone members of the organisation continue to separate the functions of head of state and head of government, the latter being filled by prime ministers. And prime ministers, as Mr Jagdeo well knows, are more circumscribed in terms of their capacity for action, than are most executive presidents, and in any case, function in a system which by its nature tends more towards team work.

Even in the case of Suriname and Haiti, only the former doesn’t have term limits, while the latter, like Guyana, restricts a president to two terms, and even then they cannot be consecutive terms. Some countries in Latin America such as Peru, for example, have similar provisions to those of Haiti. In other words, with respect to term limits Guyana is far from being in the vanguard, contrary to what President Jagdeo would like everyone to believe.

The fact that he would not want to “diminish the tools” available to his successor, says everything about his preferred style of government. He was not the originator of that style, of course; Burnham was. As has been so often observed by commentators, it is essentially a species of one-man government which, it might be added, at a psychological level satisfies the hunger for power. There is something else too: The longer the incumbent functions in this way, the more it feeds the delusion that efficient administration requires an all-powerful being at the apex of the governmental pyramid.

The reality is, of course, that this kind of arrangement is far from being efficient, because it undermines institutions, officials and systems, and makes them less effective, not more so.  What incentive is there for a minister, for example, to make decisions if he knows there is a possibility the President is going to step in and reverse that decision, or is going to settle on a course of action without reference to him (or her) or the senior officials of his ministry?  Many ministers in those circumstances will just sit back and do as little as possible. And those who do not, are in danger of having their authority undermined by a directive from above, especially if they are responsible for a portfolio in which the President has an interest. It is not a system designed to encourage serious work or innovation, and it has the potential to reduce the affected members of cabinet to ciphers.

The more the President functions in this way, the more it becomes necessary for him to function in this way. As he tours around the country and listens to the litany of woes of villagers and urban residents, and then gives orders to this or that official to look into their matters, the Office of the President increasingly comes to take over the functions of some of the ministries and government agencies. As for the citizens who take their complaints to him, inevitably they are convinced that he is the only one who can do anything for them, and there is little point in approaching central or regional government officials. It is for this reason that so many strikers – like the minibus operators, for example – insist on talking to the head of state, rather than anyone at a lower level before they will contemplate calling off their action. As a consequence, he becomes directly involved in matters which no head of government should be concerned with.

As the President’s micro-management style causes the government apparatus to become highly centralised and even less efficient than would normally be the case, the head of state himself comes to believe what sectors of the public believe – ie, that he alone can get things done. This in turn is likely to persuade him that he is the one with all the answers and that he really does not need recourse to any other opinion or authority.  In any case, he functions within a context where the PPP itself has traditionally only listened to its own members and loyalists, and has been antipathetic to views from outside its closed circle. At times of crisis there have been consultations with the opposition and/or civil society, but after the crisis has passed, then either the recommendations emerging from those consultations are forgotten, or, as in the case of the thorny subjects of local government and broadcasting, the government institutes a filibuster in an effort to get its own way. As things stand, the word compromise is not in the lexicon of the party.

Having said that, however, it has to be acknowledged that even the PPP has very little leverage over the President because of the way in which the constitution has made him an independent operator. While the Executive and Central Committees can probably exercise influence over a head of state (other than the Jagans) in his first term by virtue of the fact that he requires their imprimatur in order to be able to run again, they have no such bargaining chip in a second term. As it is, President Jagdeo cut himself fully loose from the bonds of party after 2006, and owing to the powers of patronage of the presidency, was able to build up his personal support base in the upper echelons of the PPP.

In 1992, President Cheddi Jagan did not want to tinker with the powers of the presidency, because he liked things the way they were, and the PNC in opposition has never wanted to tinker with them either, because for them too the lure of power has been too strong. The only modification that they acceded to, therefore, was the term limits provision.  In a country like this with its ethnic voting patterns, a maximum leader is the worst possible model to have; what one wants is an institutional framework that is more conducive to meaningful debate out of which some kind of genuine agreement can emerge. Edicts handed down from on high tend to generate antagonism from the segment of the electorate which perceives itself to be excluded from the political process.

Democracies function best where there are strong, autonomous institutions, capable officials and properly funded and staffed oversight bodies such as the Office of the Auditor General to ensure accountability; they do not work well where there is a maximum leader. Needless to say none of the above-mentioned conditions obtain at the present time, and as long as we have presidents who are constitutionally unfettered and temperamentally inclined to unilateral action, they might never obtain. Burnham introduced the executive presidency for the purposes of his own personal aggrandisement, not because it was a beneficial constitutional change. At the time when the constitution was being reformed both parties, as said above, avoided fundamental amendments because of the addiction to power – even if they didn’t have it, they hoped to get it one day. In addition, of course, the continent of South America is presidential not prime ministerial terrain, and those aspiring to the presidency as well as the President want the precedence in terms of protocols that go with the office of head of state when meeting the neighbours.

This newspaper has traditionally adhered to the view that in our circumstances we should return to a prime ministerial system where the functions of a head of state and a head of government do not reside in one person, and there is nothing that has happened in the last twelve years to persuade us that we should change our position.

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