The ‘politics of no’

Independence Day rolled around again last week, and all the reflections, commentaries, analyses, ruminations, declamations and speeches on the passage of 48 years must have had the naïve and uninitiated wondering whether these really related to one country alone, or whether in fact two nations were not involved.

But then that is the problem with Guyana; it is not just that current circumstances spawn diametrically opposed views of what is happening, it is that perceptions of history too reflect the same dichotomy. It is ever so, of course, in divided societies, and there are far more disunited societies than this one currently gracing our planet with their tumultuous presence.

Some years ago historians from the various religious groups and other factions in Lebanon decided to try and create a unified history textbook for use in schools, to replace the variegated irreconcilable versions then in circulation. After years of work they produced something which although it did not satisfy everyone, more or less all could live with. The people who had the final say about whether it went into schools or not, however, were not the historians, but the politicians, and it will come as no surprise to the citizens of this country to learn that they promptly rejected it.

We don’t have the same problem within our school system, if only because the curriculum hardly covers the contentious era of modern Guyanese history, tending to confine itself to a few platitudes about Independence and the like – and even that at a very early stage in a pupil’s school career. Outside that context, however, the PPP especially has staked a claim to the authorized version of the past as they see it, railing against the ‘revisionism’ of others, especially as it pertains to Dr Cheddi Jagan and his role in events.

But of course as indicated above, the critical issues which the past raises are still with us today, and until there is some kind of accommodation in the present the past will not be left alone by politicians for only the historians to deal with. Under such circumstances the former will always feel that they have a monopoly on the interpretation of events and that this should be accepted as the ‘truth’ by the electorate.

The truth in its multifarious aspects, however, is not easily accessed by those who only see with a partisan eye. In any case, when there are two such conflicting accounts of the same set of conditions or sequence of occurrences, it is no challenge for the rational person to recognize that at best these can only represent partial truths. It is not possible for one to be completely right and the other completely wrong, while one or both might be more wrong than right. But then that is the problem with segmented societies: so many things are judged through the lens of a single group – even morality – and standards are not applied even-handedly to the entire collective.

So no one should have been too surprised – and probably no one was – when addressing the nation on the occasion of the Independence anniversary President Ramotar launched into a disquisition on how the opposition is stymieing ‘development’ – “the politics of ‘no,’” he called it. While it was anything but a unifying speech, that phrase at least was a novel addition to the limited political lexicon of Freedom House, whose recitations on the subject of the PNC, at least, have not changed much in forty years.

As we reported on Independence Day, the President went through the list of well-known projects affected by parliamentary gridlock – the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project, the Specialty Hospital and the Marriott Hotel being prominent among them. While the government and President Ramotar, in this instance, talk about ‘development’ projects being thwarted, the opposition refers to the lack of accountability and transparency in every major venture the administration undertakes.

Leaving aside for the moment the major fault line this represents in terms of what the two sides interpret democracy to mean, it has to be said that the ‘politics of no’ is as much a feature of government’s approach in Parliament and outside it, as it is the opposition’s – in fact, in many instances more so. It is the government, after all, which initiates all state projects; the opposition is hardly in a position to do so because it does not control state resources. That being so, what President Ramotar in effect is blaming the opposition for is not rubber-stamping everything the government wants, no matter that one of the latter’s acknowledged functions in the National Assembly is to scrutinize bills, projects, the budget and the like. There is nothing in the constitution or the Laws of Guyana which requires the opposition to pass without question anything the government wants; quite the contrary, in fact.

As the government well knows, the combined opposition represents the majority of the electorate, yet even in those circumstances, it does not believe it should give an account of how it is spending taxpayer dollars, or justify to the public what the rationale behind a Marriott Hotel is, for example, when other hotels are in difficulties or are closing down. Is it conceivable, for instance, that the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project might have been given a less damning review by the opposition as a whole had the government made the documentation available to them at an early stage, instead of offering to do so after Sithe Global had already pulled out, and even then, not all of it?

What is it in the ruling party’s psyche that appears to make it impossible for them to compromise (or move from the ‘politics of no’), no matter how urgent or critical it is that they should attempt to do so? Is it connected to their obsessive adherence to an unvarying version of historical events which causes them to try and force everything which happens currently into the same historical mould, however inappropriate?

There is the case of the anti-money laundering amendments to the law, which the President cited with some animation. Now it may be the case that some months ago it would have been better wisdom on the opposition’s part to allow the bill to go through, no matter how defective it was, and without demanding conditions in exchange. That having been said, times have moved on, and we are now where we are. At this late stage, what, for example, explains the absolute refusal of the government to make even a minor concession by accepting any of APNU’s additional amendments to the principal bill?

Then there is the AFC which has offered the government a compromise on its insistence that the Public Procurement Commission be set up before it will lend its members’ votes to the passage of the bill. But the governing party, which lost some votes to the AFC in its heartland in 2011 will not deal with it. APNU has other demands, in particular those relating to bills passed by the National Assembly which Mr Ramotar has vetoed. If the government would recognize that it must make some concessions, and the main opposition could see its way to not expecting all of its demands to be met, then we might get beyond the ‘politics of no’ in this instance.

At the bottom of the ‘politics of no,’ of course, is a basic disagreement about what democracy means. President Ramotar had plenty to say about consolidating the “new democracy,” but his is not a formula which democrats anywhere else would recognize in this day and age. Once voted into government whether by a majority or minority the ruling party seeks the exercise of power unrestrained by the onus of having to compromise. But democracy is about compromise, and in the case of the anti-money laundering legislation in particular, APNU has to remember that too. For its part, however, to become fully part of the democratic universe, Freedom House has to move beyond the straitjacket of what for decades it has perceived to be its history. One might have thought that after all this time it would have recognized that government by only one side to the total exclusion of input from the other is not conducive to ‘development.’ The ‘politics of no’ as practised by the government is not democracy either.

 

 

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