The PPP negotiating with its devil

Nelson Mandela had spent 28 years in prison before agreeing in 1985 to begin negotiating with an apartheid regime he considered essentially evil.  On the occasions when the regime had offered to end his incarceration Mandela had refused because his conditions were not met. However, by 1985 the South African government was coming under increasing pressure to end apartheid and Mandela initiated secret talks with the regime. Some five years later, the South African government met Mandela’s conditions, which allowed him to leave prison and begin negotiations for a post-apartheid South Africa.

There is no gainsaying it; when someone deliberately inflicts serious and unjustifiable harm upon you, negotiating with them must be very difficult and few people could have gone through what Mandela did without looking to exact vengeance at the first opportunity.  But Mandela began negotiations with a regime in which he had little trust and today he is an international icon par excellence, largely because of his inclusive world outlook. Indeed, his approach to negotiation is given as a text book example on how to negotiate with those you consider evil.

Cheddi Jagan and the PPP were kept out of office in Guyana for a not too dissimilar amount of time, largely because of a naive belief that international capital would never have allowed its self-interest to be trumped by majority rule, particularly in a racially bifurcated state. It was not until the removal of communism, epitomized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the major geopolitical forces were sufficiently placated for the PPP to be allowed to return to power in 1992.

Naturally, over the years in political exile, the PPP developed and sold to its constituents a world view which absolved it of its political errors and presented Burnham and the PNC as essentially evil. Cheddi died too early for us to say much about where he would have taken Guyana once it became obvious that effective governance was impossible without either serious consensus-building or a resort to autocratic measures. One thing is certain; his successors have lacked his vision and genuine openness. Rooted in the deliberately obstructive notion that a consensual regime must await the building of trust between, at least, the leadership of the major ethnic groups (had Mandela taken such a position, it is anyone’s guess where South Africa would have been today) they – unsuccessfully – chose political dominance, which in our context means ethnic dominance, thus the need for treason trials, various media shenanigans, the suppression of collective bargaining, perceived opposition organisations, etc.

However, the last election has changed the equation and now the regime finds itself in the invidious position of having to negotiate with its devil, but demonizing the other side makes it psychologically and practically difficult for one to negotiate with them. Firstly, one tends to fall into emotional traps, which result in suboptimal knee-jerk decisions and moral contradictions. This can be clearly seen in the PPP/C over-reliance on a permanent ethnic voting majority in conditions where that majority was diminishing and finding itself in a position of having to subvert the kind of trade union rights to which Cheddi Jagan and the PPP were once emotionally attached.

Secondly and practically, it confuses one’s constituency when one appears willing to negotiate with the devil and this situation becomes more dangerous if it turns out that such a collaboration leads to improved conditions. Thus (apart from the fact that the concept resonates well with the perception it has developed in its constituency) one must be perceived as having being “bullied” to the negotiating table by riots, “slow fiah” or by a one seat dictatorship!  If for no other reason, the opposition must not expect that negotiating with the PPP/C will be easy, for unless the PPP/C urgently and sensibly retools, a win-win situation that leads to all-round positive development for the nation can result in more of the PPP/C’s constituents questioning its historical stance and could well signal the death knell of the party!

In normal political conditions, a government that loses the parliament would have two basic options: to immediately return to the electorate and try to improve its fortunes or to recognise that the new position in the parliament will require it to negotiate and thus to put in place arrangements to do so in an open and transparent manner. However, as we have seen, Guyana is not normal and the PPP/C took a course more in keeping with its context. It sought to bluff and bluster its way forward and thus it must take full responsibility for the shambles that resulted from the budget debate.

The budget cuts were necessary but they were not a result of any negotiation; not the result of a process of collaboration and the building of added value to be shared among the parties. They resulted from the pure use of power – where in the face of obstinacy the more powerful side did what it believed best.  Therefore, they will more likely not lead to governmental efficiencies.

Mr. Granger’s conception appears more realistic. He is reported as saying that: “We entered the talks with goodwill. We entered the talks with the expectation that the PPP/C would accede to some of our requests because we feel that we have to get the PPP on our side if we are to move the country forward….. The PPP did not accept a single request or recommendation from the APNU and the AFC teams ….  It was no negotiation at all … We will use the leverage that we have gained this evening to go back to the government to continue talks until we get what we want.”

But make no mistake, the PPP/C’s Marxist/Leninist organisational culture may make it appear a monolith, but no organisation of its size is ever without internal divisions, and what happened over the last few week will have improved the policy space of those in the party who believe that negotiation is the way forward. Though somewhat truncated, the regime now has a budget and cannot easily use an impasse to successfully blind-side its constituency. Furthermore, the budget process and outcome have created the kind of institutional fluidity that allows President Ramotar the opportunity to make a proper cost-benefit analysis of his government’s and the national condition. In this process, he would do well to eschew the obvious beneficiaries of the status quo and seek independent assessments.

If the government and the opposition are to serve the interest of Guyana they need to adhere to a constructive narrative which assumes that even in a competitive relationship it is possible to negotiate and build value to be shared by all, and that although all sides have fears and interests which they would like to safeguard and pursue, and on occasions miscalculations and mistakes will be made, all our communities will prefer that they seek their goals in a moral, peaceful and progressive manner.

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