By Andre Haynes, Guest Contributor
If the AFC has its way, we could soon find ourselves facing new general elections a lot earlier than expected.
At this stage, without the guaranteed support of APNU—which has been understandably guarded about committing to a path that would lead to new polls—the AFC’s threat to move a no-confidence vote against the government is only that, a threat, albeit one that should give us pause as a nation about the state of our governance.
Just over two-and-a-half years ago, we, the people, in effect challenged our leaders to put aside partisan interests and work together to make a Guyana that is better for all. Admittedly, the results of the November 28, 2011 elections, where the Donald Ramotar-led PPP/C retained control over the executive while the opposition parties won a single-seat majority in the National Assembly, did not derive from national consensus. In fact, quite the opposite. No single party or coalition, it seemed, was the right answer for the outright majority. And yet, within the confines of our electoral system—inadequately suited to a multi-ethnic society as it is—the electorate inadvertently engineered a situation where political cooperation and, importantly, compromise would be essential for the effective functioning of both the executive and the legislature.
But for anyone hopeful of a new beginning in our governance, the results so far have been disappointing. As we have seen from almost every significant issue that has come before them, the Ramotar administration and the parliamentary opposition are each content to hold firm to their respective positions, unable or unwilling to make the concessions needed for consensus. The frustrating saga of the anti-money laundering amendment bill, still before the National Assembly after over a year, best demonstrates the great lengths to which they will go to avoid making concessions, no matter the cost to the nation.
To be fair, perhaps it was expecting too much to hope for pragmatism from actors that have engaged in nothing but adversarial politics for the better part of five decades. Our political engagements suffer for the discernible lack of respect and trust that frequently characterises them. Civil society, its ranks compromised by self-interest or inertia, has also proven an ineffective mediator. In the absence of these key elements, nurturing and sustaining an enabling environment in which good-faith negotiations can take place is practically impossible, as we have seen.
Consider the three successive national budgets, which were presented by the Ramotar administration without prior consultations with the very parliamentary opposition that would have to approve them. Though the legality of the opposition-led cuts that resulted is still being contested in our courts, they were the inevitable outcome of the administration’s failure to consult with what is arguably its most important partner in national development. Here was an opportunity for engagement between the government and the opposition that could have produced a truly “national” budget, and serve as a starting point for ongoing cooperation. Instead, the administration acted as if it were still business as usual, disregarding the fact that collectively APNU and the AFC secured more votes at the last elections and are the representatives of the majority of the electorate. Unsurprisingly, it has adopted the same disregard in authorising the release of funds for expenditure that was expressly disapproved by the National Assembly, including the over $4.5 billion it has already spent from the Consolidated Fund this year and which has precipitated the AFC’s move for a no-confidence vote.
Despite persuasive arguments to the contrary, President Ramotar insists that his administration has acted in accordance with the constitution. However, he is yet to account for its deliberate shut out of the opposition in the decision-making process that could have avoided the situation altogether.
Why has the administration resisted this route? Because it would mean acknowledging the legitimacy of the parliamentary opposition, which both the ruling party and the government have sought to deny since the elections. The president himself led the campaign to undermine the opposition’s legitimacy soon after the polls when he declared that APNU and the AFC had manipulated the elections machinery to rob the PPP/C of the parliamentary majority—never mind the fact that he had accepted the results as free and fair. It was likely an attempt by the president to explain the worst performance of his party since it took office in 1992, but also served as a slap in the face to anyone who voted for either APNU or the AFC.
Unexpectedly charged as head of a minority government with forging a crucial working partnership with the opposition, President Ramotar has little to show outside of unfulfilled promises (local government polls, tax reform and the Linden Agreement may immediately come to mind) and political gridlock after his two-and-a-half years in office. He must know that he will have to account to the electorate in the event of new elections.
To his detriment, he has tried to cultivate the image of the strongman, like his predecessor, all while ignoring the political reality in which he is operating. It would serve him to remember, even now in what could be the twilight of his presidency, that as head of state, he is president of all the people, not just the ones who voted for his party and he should act accordingly.
The administration has made it easy to sympathise with the opposition, but if either the AFC or APNU or both are truly committed to the run off of premature polls then they will also have to account for the shortcomings in our governance. No doubt weary of the administration’s record of honouring commitments largely in the breach, they have been practically inflexible with their demands, which only serves to perpetuate distrust on all sides. After all, good faith must begin somewhere. The opposition’s scrutiny remains crucial to ensure proper accountability in the implementation of government policy and the use of taxpayers’ funds but one must also question the wisdom of their insistence in dominating every aspect of parliamentary life, when that institution is expected to serve as the primary vehicle for building trust and consensus.
The nation has lived with spectre of snap polls on the horizon ever since the PPP/C lost the majority. And unless you opt for indifference, it has meant living with more uncertainty and anxiety. Sure, for some new general elections may offer the hope of relief from the stranglehold the current political gridlock has on our future. But there is the all too real potential for reaping the same results from fresh polls—in which case, what do we do then?
For those of us who may soon be asked to cast our votes again, it is only natural to question whether we would be engaging in an exercise in futility. At least until there is real commitment by our leaders both in word and action to giving effect to true participatory democracy, which we agreed to be the aim of our political system during the optimism of the constitution reform process. Recognising that no one group holds all the right answers to fixing our problems—whether it be very real race, ethnic and class divisions, poverty, unemployment, crime or pursuing sustainable investments and growth—we must agree on a common agenda for development and the meaningful involvement of all in making it a reality. We cannot afford not to.
As the results of the last census show, outside of the elections cycle a significant number of us have continued to vote with our feet. The trend has been consistent. And it will most likely continue this way because elections are not going to solve our fundamental problems, regardless of whether the PPP/C or any other group wins an outright majority.