Avoiding gridlock

The situation is now more complicated, and exactly what the President meant by saying that his administration would not be held to ransom by “intractable postures” was not made clear. Was he suggesting that his government would proceed as it intended, no matter what Parliament decided? Was he implying that should an item of legislation passed by a parliamentary majority but which the government had opposed come before him, he would not sign it? If the first, then the administration could put itself in a position where it would be acting unconstitutionally – something which is not entirely alien to its experience, although in this term it would probably invite the kind of consequences which it avoided in the last; and if the second, it might pay a political price if it was perceived as blocking a measure the population at large regarded as desirable.

Mr Ramotar went on to say at a later point that “…my administration would be loath to accept gridlock that can stymie Guyana’s development.” Well, avoiding gridlock is the name of the new game, and that depends as much on the government (in fact more) as it does on the opposition. The simple truth is that what citizens want to see – apart from adherence to the constitution, Guyana’s statutes and the rule of law – is a rational approach to government.  Since 1968, if not before, the two major parties have operated with the party – and by extension, often their own constituency – primarily in mind, rather than the people of this country in an objective sense. Both sought to mask the fact that in office, they saw the retention of power rather than the governance of the nation as their primary purpose, which is not to say that each of them did not genuinely believe that it was the only one with the capacity to ‘develop’ Guyana.

The additional problem in the case of the PPP of course is that not only is the retention of power a dominant motivating factor, but when it has that power it is consumed by an obsession to control every facet of the nation’s life in the perverse belief that that is the only way things can get done. The problem is that rational government is simply not compatible with the concept of total control at the centre, or for that matter when the retention of power after attaining office is the primary goal. It has meant that over the last two decades, party interests and eventually the personal interests of individual members have overridden considerations of good governance.  As a consequence, interventions in a sector which were good in themselves, but which emanated from other political forces or even sometimes an NGO not linked to the government, were regarded with hostility and quite often obstructed.

In other words, if there is to be genuine compromise and gridlock is to be avoided, then the PPP has some bad habits to unlearn. And President Ramotar’s administration has not made a very promising start. As it is, the new parliamentary dispensation has created a different mood in the country, even in some areas where the party once held undisputed sway. In addition to this, in one high-profile instance the government has entirely misjudged how international institutions operate. The head of state, of course, has surrounded himself with personnel closely associated with the former President whose political inclinations leaned heavily in the direction of the autocratic, and this will make it doubly difficult for him to reorient the party – whose Executive Committee is also dominated by Jagdeoites – towards placing the good of the nation above the good of the party.

As it is, the new PPP/C administration has stirred up a few marabunta nests already with its failure to change its traditional modus operandi and its misreading of the changing times. The institution of an IMC to replace the GCB is a case in point, and the government is now facing consequences from the regional and international cricketing bodies.

The governing party’s use of its political clout at UG to fire Freddie Kissoon and others has triggered an outcry not just about the contract terminations, but also about the general conditions at that institution and the fact it is so underfunded. (The government can talk until it’s blue that this was an independent decision of the UG Council, but who in their right senses would seriously believe that five Council members associated with the administration/party would make an independent move in the teeth of PPP disapproval.) Following an interview given by Dr Rory Fraser to this newspaper last year, since confirmed by the Vice Chancellor, the public has learned about documentation in relation to World Bank money for the university sitting on the Finance Minister’s desk for months awaiting his signature. Could it be, one wonders, that the government does not feel it has enough control over the funds, which is why it is dragging its feet about signing? If that were so, it would be a classic example of putting narrow party interests above those of the university and the nation.

One wonders too about whether the PPP/C has changed its approach to the question of local government. Many of our problems at the local level have come as a consequence of the stranglehold the Minister of Local Government has on the various regional and municipal authorities, as well as on the NDCs. Under the current legislation, the central government appoints the Regional Executive Officers, who are the ones that handle the funds and who are answerable to it, and not to the elected bodies – the Regional Councils. In other words, it is the REOs who really wield much of the power, more especially since the government holds the purse strings. In the municipalities it is no different, and the case of Georgetown is very well known, where the authorities have insufficient funds at their disposal to run the city, and the government has consistently refused to expand the revenue base. The practice has been to allow crises to develop, particularly on the garbage front, then blame City Hall (it is not entirely blameless, but even if it were a paragon of efficiency it still could not run the municipality on the revenue currently available to it), and then propose the installation of an Interim Management Council. In other words, the PPP/C has put Georgetown residents’ health at risk all because of partisan politics; it is a disgraceful record.

So have attitudes changed? Apparently not. As Mayor Hamilton Green points out in a letter in today’s newspaper, President Ramotar had absolutely nothing to say in his address about local government. There has been not a word about local government elections, and the PPP/C is still nattering about an IMC in Georgetown – a clear indication that it is seeking political advantage prior to an election when it comes. Then there is this business about shunting the overseers of the NDCs around – another possibly political move. And given all this, are we also to believe that REOs sent to regions which the government does not now control will not operate to stymie the Regional Chairmen and their Councils so that nothing gets done and the opposition is brought into disrepute among voters? As the local government situation stands, there is every indication in the case of the PPP/C that party still takes precedence over people.

All of which is not to say that the opposition too must avoid the temptation to create “gridlock“ with political motives in mind; it would be disreputable, and would betray the voters who, as said above, are seeking rational government. Nor should it use its majority as a bludgeon, something of which its predecessor was guilty; there will be a political price to pay for that too. As for the PPP/C, it may well see itself as being on the horns of a dilemma. Its traditional instincts might be to force a national election in the hope of securing an overall majority so there could be a return to the status quo ante. It is, however, a risky manoeuvre, since there is no guarantee it can get its traditional voters back to the polling booth; the trend of a declining turnout may be here to stay, just as in the mature democracies. In addition, as suggested above, if it is seen as the party causing the gridlock, then the voters could express their disapproval. Alternatively, the party may believe that if it works with the opposition in the National Assembly to improve structures, institutions and decision-making, the electorate might think a hung parliament is a good idea and act accordingly whenever the next poll is held. Whatever happens at the next election, however, that still looks like the long-term trend of the future, and the party might be well advised to make the appropriate accommodations to that future.

If the President is serious about “compromise” and avoiding “gridlock,” therefore, then he will have to start working to persuade the members of the Central and Executive Committees, that they will have to relinquish the notion of party comes first, and stop confusing what is in the party’s interest with what is in the nation‘s interest.