A budding ‘competitive authoritarianism’

As promised, this column will consider the political side of former president Donald Ramotar’s ‘Under the PPP/C Guyana had the fastest growing economy in the region’ (SN: 22/05/2017), since it raised important issues which, because they are coming from Mr. Donald Ramotar and there is a tendency by constituents to categorise most of the political actions of the other side as racist, are likely to be rejected out of hand by many. More specifically, I want to properly consider his claim that the economic decline between 1998 and 2005 resulted from attempts by the PNC and its collaborators to destabilize the PPP/C government and that in the last two years of APNU+AFC rule we have been experiencing what could amount to a budding ‘competitive authoritarianism.’ 

Mr. Ramotar explained the economic decline of 1998 to 2005 by requesting that we ‘recall the riots and destruction by fire after the 1992, 1997 and 2001 elections when businesses suffered millions of dollars in damage. These were clear attempts at destabilization of our country.’ On this score, on the whole I agree with Mr. Ramotar and believe that he was even somewhat conservative in his assessment. However, although our context is difficult to manage, I believe that his party chose a political course which, even if we factor in the economic growth that took place since 2006, was ultimately suboptimal to say the least: its modus operandi inevitably resulted in the society being more divisive, corrupt and dehumanizing to a sizable section of the population.

As stated last week, between 1998 and 2005, the economy stagnated and in 2003 the World Bank pointed to an important aspect of the story: the precipitous decline in private capital accumulation which took place since 1998. That there are racists at all levels of the PPP/C, I would not deny but in my opinion, the raison d’être for its leadership’s decision to dominate our political landscape was not essentially racist but based on a belief that it was immediately the only way for it to secure its democratic right to rule with reasonable stability, to be able to rekindle economic growth and, hopefully, development.

There was the option of cooperating in a fundamental manner with the PNC, but the PPP/C rejected it, again not strictly motivated by racism but the belief that PNC supporters had effective control over the state machinery: the bureaucracy, security and important influences in the judiciary. For the PPP/C to then allow the PNC significant political power would be in effect to court its own demise. In his 2004 farewell statement, President Jimmy Carter correctly assessed the thinking then prevailing in the leadership of the PPP/C: ‘Jagdeo is an intelligent and capable leader, but he takes full advantage of the ancient “winner take all” system in Guyana. Following my meeting with him, I was very doubtful that his political party (PPP) would commence new dialogue with the PNC, be willing to … share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from party list on a proportional basis.’

The stagnant economy needed annual investment of about 20% of GDP to achieve reasonable growth, and the essential rationale for political dominance was that it was going to facilitate such growth. Now, add to this the fact that by 2005 young President Bharrat Jagdeo, who claimed to be an economist, was on the verge of entering his final term as president but had been in charge of economic management for the entire period of the decline! The attempts to massage the economy, the mad rush for investments from whatever source -internal or external – encouraged unorthodox approaches, but attracting investment was the game. The desire to dominate the political space and this economic situation contributed significantly to the unsubtle transfer of state resources to supporters, mismanagement and corruption, etc. discerned by many. The signal lesson for the current regime is that, contrary to what the former president opportunistically attempted to portray, trying to go it alone has never served Guyana well.

As providence would have it, the main factor that led the PPP/C astray is still very active and perhaps more dangerously so! Mr. Ramotar chose as an example of the degradation of our civil and political liberties his belief that the National Assembly has been transformed ‘from being a forum for debate and discussion into a rubber-stamp where debates are stifled’. Apart from the fact that Westminster-type parliaments are essentially rubber stamps, and that during its 23 years in office the PPP/C utilized that stamp quite liberally, this complaint, coming from the man who resorted to the deeply colonial instrument of prorogation to shut down that National Assembly, is too much!

Yet we live in an era of ‘democratic backsliding’; a condition to which our politicians are prone. We have recently seen one expression of it in the behaviour of the PPP/C.  As Nancy Bermeo put it: ‘Open-ended coups d’état, executive coups, and blatant election-day vote fraud are declining while promissory coups, executive aggrandizement and strategic electoral manipulation and harassment are increasing.  Contemporary forms of backsliding are especially vexing because they are legitimated by the very institutions democracy promoters prioritize’ (http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/article/ democratic-backsliding).

Since the election of Donald Trump, concerns have been raised that the United States may be heading in a similar direction of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ – ‘a system in which meaningful democratic institutions exist yet the government abuses state power to disadvantage its opponents. This takes place through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps, most of which are legal and many of which appear innocuous but taken together they would tilt the playing field in favor of the ruling party’ (www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2017-04-17/america-still-safe-democracy).

The PPP democratically captured the state and then attempted to utilise it to politically dominate the society, but I believe that, although different, the situation may perhaps be more dangerously poised today.  Whatever one believes vis-à-vis the PPP/C’s above mentioned position on coalition with the PNC, that the supporters of the latter did – and notwithstanding the efforts of the PPP/C, still do – dominate the institutions of the state is an empirical fact.

In other words, in this time of ‘competitive authoritarianism’, the APNU+AFC government has the capacity to undermine the democratic institutions of the state in a manner the PPP/C could now only envy.

Thus, matters not from which quarter, when concerns about the state’s politicization are raised, they need to be taken very seriously and vigilantly examined and if necessary countered. The present government came to office democratically with promises to improve governance. However, it has so far reneged on important aspects of its promise and is still busy countering notions that it is militarizing the state. It has been making strange demands in relation to the critical democratic issue of the appointment of the chairperson of the elections commission; has short-circuited debate on the important State Assets Recovery Bill; has been suspect in its dealings with the judiciary and the fundamental notion of the separation of powers, etc. Politically, Guyana is a polity without a united public opinion, yet we must try our best to prevent the reemergence of bygone autocracies.


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