Power is seductive, and its siren song has been responsible for many of our political travails. This is not to say, of course, that those who seek it do not believe that they have the answers to make life better for the rest of us; it is simply that in this country it is unlikely that anyone who wants to improve the world will be disposed to seek leadership in politics if they lack the drive for power. There are, after all, many ways in which a social conscience can express itself without being propelled by political ambition. And in Guyana, it must be remembered, politics has been a nastier game than it has in some other places, and has tended to put off quite a few of the decent people who might otherwise have been attracted to it.
So now we are left with our present complement of politicians, a portion of whom are desperately trying to cling to power, and the other portion of whom have been dickering recently about which posts each should hold should they accede to power. (The outcome of the APNU-AFC talks was not known at the time of writing.) What we are not hearing about, as has been pointed out by several commentators, is what plans all sides have for us should they accede to office after the general election on May 11. There is, of course, a reason – albeit not the only one – for this unseemly jockeying for power so early, and that is the context in which it is occurring.
The possibilities for any political party in this country are bounded by what is sometimes called the ethnic equation. The two major parties are dependent for the bedrock of their vote on the two largest ethnic groups. None of the political players has grasped the racial dynamics better than the incumbent PPP/C, which is acutely conscious of the fact that the number of its Indian supporters has declined quite substantially, and cannot on its own, assure the party of victory in a general election nowadays. Freedom House knows very well that success (both overall and even a plurality) hinges on the Amerindian vote, which is split, and that serious defections from the Indigenous constituency would cause it problems in the May poll.
And as for the AFC and APNU, the contours of a coalition were contingent on how each side perceived the vote would go. APNU naturally, would consider itself by far the larger of the two parties, and therefore, by definition entitled to take the most important posts, including the leadership; if so, it would be assuming, whether rightly or wrongly, that it would just be a question of adding the AFC votes on to its total when the election comes around. There is no guarantee, however, that this is how the May 11 poll would play out.
Up until fairly recently, the AFC for its part – at least if the statements of Moses Nagamootoo are anything to go by – was taking the ethnic equation into account in its calculations. Begun as a non-racial party, the AFC has ironically had to depend on first the disaffected African vote to enter parliament in 2006, and then on the disaffected Indian vote to be returned in 2011. One assumes, therefore, that in its negotiations (its origins notwithstanding), it would have been loathe to ignore the racial arithmetic which has brought it to where it is.
The holding of power and the prospect of power can often do strange things to people. In the first place, they frequently come to confuse what is in their own personal interest with what is in the public interest; it is perhaps, a self-justification for greed when in office, and unvarnished ambition when seeking office. Whatever the case, it has certainly been very much on display in the last twenty years. This goes together with a clouding of judgement and an inability to see reality, something which has also been very much on display in this country, and over which, it might be added, the governing party has not exercised a complete monopoly. However, since 2011, it has seemed to be unable to recognize what the results of the last election really meant, and what the circumstances necessitated it should do. Instead it has resorted to plain illegalities to accomplish whatever it wanted, and has eschewed consulting or including at some level the opposition which was in the majority. As it was, at the same time as it was spending $4.5B of taxpayer money in defiance of the constitution, it was mouthing empty platitudes about democracy. It is the arrogance of power.
Of course, if a system evolves which compromises a number of players within it, every newcomer who enters it will be compromised by it; the individual will not change the system, it is the system which is more likely to change the individual. This is not to say that reform is not possible, merely that it is not easy and can usually occur only under a specific set of circumstances. It has to be remembered too, that individuals in power as in other circumstances will often take decisions in their immediate interest, and will not take a long-term view. Certainly that is the case with governments performing illegal acts, or which are gaining current benefits from ill-judged policies; they do not look to the future.
Politicians, not just here, but the world over, rarely admit mistakes. Certainly governments don’t, and especially not the current administration, no matter what has happened or what they have done. Being a politician anywhere seems quite frequently to go with an innate hauteur, and here the problem is arguably worse. Estelle Morris, the former Education Minister in a UK Labour government was appointed to her post in 2001, and resigned in 2002 saying she did not feel she was up to the job. In addition, she had come into office saying she would resign if literacy and numeracy targets were not met, and since they weren’t, she was as good as her word.
Apart from remarking that if the latter principle were to be applied in this country, we would have had a turnover of education ministers no one would ever have been able to keep track of, it has to be said that it would be difficult to find among the ranks of our power-holders and power-seekers examples of such humility and acknowledgement of personal limitations. This government appears to have operated with the principle that anyone is suitable for any post, and incumbents who have been the subject of trenchant criticism seem to agree. It is part of the delusion of power.
In a general sense at the highest level some of the allure of power would be removed from our political context if we returned to a prime ministerial system, rather than retain the executive presidency. When the constitution was under discussion in 2000, there did not appear to be any appetite for getting rid of the executive presidency, and since then – more particularly since the Bharrat Jagdeo presidency – the talk has always revolved around restricting the powers of the president, rather than returning to a constitutional presidency. Even in the proposals put forward by the AFC recently, there was no mention of restoring the former prime ministerial arrangements.
All parties, it would appear, cannot rid themselves of the yearning for achieving the executive presidency, with its status and its accompanying powers – however these might be restricted subsequently. It distorted the focus of the negotiations that the AFC and APNU had, among many other things, and was partly responsible for allowing the PPP/C to bypass the National Assembly and in the end suspend parliament.
An ethnically divided society such as this needs a head of government with whom the aura of power is less associated, and among various other reasons, who is personally answerable to MPs in parliament for the discharge of his or her functions.