After six months in office there is one thing the new administration should have discovered by now, namely, that government is not easy. It is not easy anywhere in the modern world, but it presents particular challenges in a fractured society such as this one, where rational systems have become attenuated, or in some instances are non-existent; where the bureaucracy on which the implementation of polices depends is functioning well below par; where a human resource crisis operates as a brake on development; and where corruption permeates so many institutions. The public, however, makes no allowance for all that.
For the most part, the electorates in most free societies do not take political manifestos too seriously; they recognize that at best they are just a theoretical guide to what a party might do if voted into office, since politicians view commitments in a very cavalier light. But once in a while voters are prepared to believe what they are promised – at least when an issue of principle is involved. And so it was in the 2015 election – not where the PPP/C was concerned, it might be said; after all they had been in office for 23 years and citizens had a good measure of them, but in the case of the newcomers on the political block.
The coalition campaigned, among other things, on a directly expressed issue of principle ‒ the promise of clean, transparent, accountable government. There was too, the implied principle that the people came first, and the government would operate merely as a servant of the people. At least that was the immediate conclusion from some fairly reckless promises which were made about salary increases for various groups, along with a rise in pensions. The point was that the predecessors had been all about putting themselves first, and not the citizenry.
Given the huge challenges of governing this country, and the inexperience of so many ministers, mistakes by the APNU+AFC government were to be expected in the first few months of office. However, all that notwithstanding, they should not have thought that every mistake would have been indulged by those who voted them in; the character of the mistake is critical. While voters could probably swallow the increases to public servants, etc, which were considerably less than had been promised, there is no way on the face of this earth that a hike in ministerial salaries would have been acceptable.
What the new ministers did in one fell swoop was to advertise – rightly or wrongly – that their interest in being in government was not qualitatively different from that of the previous incumbents, and that the people were not uppermost in their minds. That has nothing to do with the complexities of governing, and they will find it hard to live that particular blunder down, or change voters’ perceptions that they broke faith.
Then there is the matter of transparency, accountability, etc. It did not take the coalition long to put forensic audits and a state asset recovery unit in place to look into the transactions of the previous administration, and voters were satisfied that that had been done. However, the government has to understand that they will be held to the same standard as the PPP/C, and there are already questions in relation to some of their decisions which are a source of unease, Bai Shanlin and Fedders Lloyd among them. If they stray from these particular declared principles, not only will they not survive the next election, but if they do not, they too will be subject to the magnifying glass of forensic audits.
Some of the government’s problems stem from the fact that it is simply unwieldy, with too many ministers who were created in order to satisfy the various elements making up the coalition. Sometimes the impression is given that certain ministers speak first and go to cabinet later, while there is a general sense of a lack of a central vision to which everyone adheres. Some have clearly not acquainted themselves fully yet with the laws and regulations relating to their portfolios, and not all of them give the appearance of being well versed in democratic practice.
There may be those among them, of course, who thought that government was easy, and it was simply a matter of handing down instructions from the sanctity of the minister’s office. If so, it is about time they acquainted themselves with the legal and other constraints, the impediments to carrying out a policy, and the various sensitivities which have to be taken into account before taking a decision. Having said that, no government, even with the best of cabinets and the most meticulous adherence to the rule of law, is going to achieve dramatic fast results where institutions are concerned, although there can be noticeable improvements.
This does not mean to say that there are not some other areas where spectacular fast results can be achieved, and the APNU+AFC government has such an area. It is called Georgetown. The new look of the capital lifts everyone’s spirits; after two decades of filth, decay and squalor, it is once again clean, tidy and mostly litter-free. In central Georgetown, at least, the water drains off efficiently following rain and residents feel a huge sense of relief that they are able in a psychological sense to connect with their city again.
There are other areas too where there have been positives; certainly in international fora, President Granger displays gravitas and speaks intelligently. In other words, he has the bearing of a president. There will, too, be local government elections next year – a huge step forward – although it may take time before the benefits of local democracy make themselves felt.
Where national issues are concerned, the judgement of the voters will be made on matters of transparency, accountability, etc, and what, in the end, the government manages to do for ordinary people after it made a point of looking after its own members this year.
APNU+AFC should not forget that it was voted in by the most slender of majorities, and such cross-over votes as it achieved came over because they wanted to see clean government. The APNU base turned out solidly, because its members thought the new coalition would improve the lot of the poorer classes. The government should keep in mind that five years will fly by, and then it will have to face the electorate again, not with promises this time, but its record.