For those idly ruminating on what they would wish the country for the New Year, opinions probably diverge wildly. Nearly everybody would like to see a substantial decrease in the crime rate and a dramatic reduction in the number of accidents on our roads, while most people, one presumes, would wish in a vague kind of way for the disappearance of poverty and the raising of living standards, a dramatic improvement in education standards, a lowering of the suicide rate, the elimination of violence against women and children, and in the case of some people, the better treatment of animals (among various other things). Beyond these kinds of desiderata, however, there may not be great across-the-board agreement, particularly where governmental matters are concerned.
Since the mid-1950s, this country has been numbered among those where a substantial segment of the population sees out of only one eye in relation to political matters. All democracies, of course, have more than one party, and where there are real ideological differences at stake, two political entities might have difficulty in finding much common ground. However, in a healthy democratic polity the rules of the game will be more-or-less agreed, and there will be accord on critical national issues, and sometimes others as well. In addition, larger societies tend to have a not insignificant number of people who are not irrevocably committed to one side or the other, and exercise some level of independent thinking at election time in particular, if not at other times as well.
What we have in Guyana is a polarization which falls along the unhealthy fault line of ethnicity cum politics. The situation is exacerbated in our case by the fact that this is a very small society, which gives antagonisms a more personal and by extension a more intractable character, perhaps; by the fact that the leadership on both sides (not just individual leaders) have confused the acquisition or retention of power with the larger interest of the nation, and to varying degrees have used unacceptable methods in the pursuit of it; and by the fact that the vast majority of our educated people have migrated. These are the very ones who might be able to inject a greater measure of rational thinking into our fractious debates, and move the exchanges beyond the pale of hostile rhetoric, and into an arena of something corresponding to genuine discussion.
The coalition won the election with the most wafer-thin of majorities, on a ticket promising to ensure the implementation of certain rules of the game. Transparency, accountability and the rule of law, were the watchwords, and a contrast was drawn between how the new government would function, and how the old one had operated. Aside from the framework issues, there were also content promises – better salaries for public servants, etc – but these will not concern us here.
In relation to the framework there is a constitution in place (along with assorted pieces of legislation) about how elections are to be held, the powers of the various post-holders and bodies, etc. The Guyana Constitution still forms the skeleton of the rules of the game, even though its spirit is not fully fleshed out in the chapters and articles. However, by implication it does speak to the moral underpinnings of the state, and where ethical considerations are concerned, one might have thought there would be no disagreement on the part of any of the political parties.
In a theoretical sense, there isn’t, of course. At the crudest level there is no party in this country which would not agree, for example, that no public official should steal from the national purse ‒ which is not the same thing as saying that no public official has ever stolen from the national purse. Certainly the electorate of whatever political persuasion would not concede the right of the members of any party to help themselves to public funds, but unfortunately, what happens is that polarization is so entrenched that the need to vote for the favoured party tends to override any moral outrage over corruption by anyone in that same party.
What APNU+AFC effectively promised voters was greater morality in the operations of government in addition to greater adherence to the provisions of the constitution, and greater communication with the public in the form of consultation, etc. There has been much publicity from the current government about corruption under the previous administration, and the commissioning of audits to find the perpetrators, etc, but it should be said it is not the job of auditors to identify perpetrators with a view to criminal prosecution; they will identify problem areas of funds unaccounted for, and the like, which may then require a fraud investigation.
Building a case which will stand up in court will not be a quick matter, and one wish for government in the New Year is that they do a great deal less talking on the subject, and just ensure that fraud investigations are undertaken wherever appropriate. At the same time, given all they have had to say publicly, one has to wonder why they did not send the head of NICIL and his deputy on leave immediately, pending an investigation into that particular agency.
Be that as it may, not everyone in the new administration appears to have fully grasped that morality in government does not just apply to the other party; they too will be judged by the same standards as their predecessors. The problem may be a lack of apprehension that they are not in power, but in office, and that means they are hemmed around by laws, rules, regulations and ethical requirements. People will notice when they are unwilling to send a senior GPL official on leave pending an investigation into certain decisions he is alleged to have made, or if a perverse decision were to be handed down in relation to Baishanlin, or if appointments have been made without going through due process. Above all else, therefore, one wishes the government would make a far more concerted attempt in the New Year to adhere to the ethical standards it itself has promoted.
Not a great deal can be done about polarization, if only because that requires the cooperation of both sides of Guyana’s traditional divide. If the government adheres to its own standards, and operates fairly and justly, that will help a bit. But it really doesn’t matter how many ministries of social cohesion it has, if the PPP and Mr Bharrat Jagdeo in particular are still preaching their divisive message at their party gatherings with a view to maintaining the old estrangement. So if one has a New Year wish for the opposition, therefore, it is that they cease – or at least tone down – the alienating, discordant speeches to their constituency.
And one wishes all the politicians of this land a little dusting of wisdom for the New Year.