Interesting times?

There is an ancient Chinese curse that reads, “May you live in interesting times.”

Those words do not immediately summon any thoughts of foreboding, but when we consider the events that have occurred since the beginning of 2017, and we are scarcely three months in, it becomes obvious even to the casual observer that very “interesting times” are indeed upon us here in Guyana.

The year started maybe in expected fashion with the regretfully recurring stories of murder and traffic deaths to which we may be becoming increasingly immune, but as the budget debates ground to a halt in January, the spreading realisation of VAT, albeit reduced by two percentage points, being charged on a seemingly widening sea of items, caused the beginnings of murmurings among the populace.

Since then, the parking meter controversy has reached scandal proportions, with the central government vacillating on the issue while the Mayor & City Council seems unable or unwilling to address the real concerns of the middle class uprising that is challenging the legitimacy of the council’s once secret contract with Smart City Solutions.

As if that wasn’t enough of a bugbear for the government, the announcement of VAT being charged on private school fees has raised middle-class ire once more, and as we have posited before in these columns, the Minister of Finance has seemingly doubled down and held firm on this position to safeguard expected inflows. This is very likely to come to a head at some point unless appropriate middle ground can be reached.

A mini cabinet shake-up occurred and was quietly received by John Public; permanent secretaries came to the unavoidable realisation that their positions were not permanent and performance was a pre-requisite to security of tenure. The administration acknowledged that the economy was sluggish and seemed to blame lack of government spending as a contributory factor.

A lingering shortage of foreign currency at the banks in terms of its availability for making international commercial payments was not a real shortage according to the Finance Minister, and while the business community fretted and fumed and the banks remained silent, the Minister and the central Bank stuck to the script: There is no shortage of foreign currency availability for making international payments in Guyana.

All this occurred, though not necessarily in the order narrated, before we were provided with a matter that is historical in its significance, to wit the arrest and brief detention of several members of the top bracket of the opposition PPP/C, including the former President Dr Bharrat Jagdeo and former Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr Roger Luncheon, for the purpose of questioning by the SOCU of the GPF.

These arrests were telegraphed weeks earlier by Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan when, speaking in another section of the print media, he hinted that several former ministers under the PPP/C administration were expected to be charged. The PPP promptly responded that the promised arrests were simply a distraction that the government was engaging in, since the economic woes that the country was experiencing were resulting in the government “buckling under tremendous public pressure coming from numerous directions.”

If this were simply a political manoeuvre by the APNU+AFC regime to put public scrutiny once more on the PPP/C government and direct attention away from itself, it could probably be claimed it was working. However, that is not the objective, and the public will just have to wait and see how the chips will fall.

One way or another, these developments have seemingly negative implications for maintaining social cohesion in a country as divided along mainly political-racial lines as Guyana is. It also is the politicians themselves who tend to stoke the fires of ethnic insecurity since their political power is maintained through the main racial groups in Guyana.

The administration’s ability to handle each of the potentially very disruptive issues it has been faced with since the start of the year and maintain social cohesion at least at the level it ended 2016 on, will be a test of its ability to speak to the people in clear language, but mostly its ability and willingness to listen.

On the other hand, the opposition PPP/C since losing power at the 2015 general elections has taken on the role of a skulking, sullen and complaining schoolboy, walking out of Parliament on several occasions and failing to attend the President’s address to the National Assembly. Open overtures by President Granger to Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo early on in his presidency were not accepted by Mr Jagdeo, and the latest platitudes from President Granger that SOCU should not have arrested Mr Jagdeo because of his former presidential status has also been rejected by Dr Jagdeo.

Considering the low quality of parliamentary behaviour usually exhibited by our politicians, and with the heightened tensions running through our society, and the opposition seemingly willing to fan the flames from the sidelines, and with the government’s offensive against top level members of the opposition via the GPF’s SOCU, the question must arise, as to what might be the endgame in all this. Are there level-headed, impartial intermediaries present in Guyana?

The process of selecting a Chairman of the Elections Commission is still ongoing at the moment and it is not clear whether the second list due from the Opposition Leader will have any more success than the first.

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