Power junkies and the integrity of political systems

There is nothing new about arrogant, high-handed and downright boorish behaviour among high officials, not least ministers of government and other well-placed political figures in Guyana. It is their puerile way of parading their authority, of yielding unhesitatingly to patterns of behaviour that unmistakably communicate the extent of their power to those whom they deem to be lesser men and women. It is a disposition given to those possessed of dictatorial tendencies and who would arrogate to themselves privileges that were never accorded them by any legitimate authority in the first place. Such persons are known as power junkies.

One must add, of course, that this phenomenon is neither unique to Guyana nor is it universal. One of the surest indicators of a democratic environment reposes in political cultures that place limits on the authority of political leaders and require those leaders, under pain of sanction, to be accountable to and mindful of the wishes of their constituents. In real democracies politicians become indifferent to the ‘rules’ of accountability and mindfulness at their own peril.

In real democracies too there are clear and distinct spaces between the prerogatives of the politician and the rules that govern the functioning of the public servant. Politicians in democratic societies are aware of those boundaries and are mindful of the fact that there can be consequences for invasion of those spaces. It is, among other things, a question of, as far as possible, avoiding the abuse of power. Here in Guyana, there has long been irrefutable evidence of a lack of any real regard for those spaces. Serious and often costly consequences have sometimes been known to derive therefrom.

Ministerial incursion into the domain of the public servant occurs for many reasons. These might range from the purely pointless pursuit of what might loosely be defined as ‘pulling rank,’ to another extreme of seeking to corral the public servant into complicity in questionable, illegal or corrupt practices. Here, ministers have been known to take advantage of the paramountcy of their political clout which allows them not just to throw their weight around in a manner that is menacing, but also to, in one way or another, ‘reward’ the public servant who might be inclined to ‘play ball.’ One might add that these behavioural patterns and relationships apply, in every respect to relations that involve other influential political officials. On the whole it is the kind of abuse of power that obtains in political systems that remain unmindful of some of the more important tenets of democratic behaviour.

An examination of the context within which this type of behaviour takes place bears several interesting dimensions. First, there is the unwritten assumption that the politician is paramount. It is often said that the election to office of a government immediately alters the nature of the paradigm between the electorate and the politician. The electorate ceases to be a constituency and the elected official becomes paramount. In the particular case of the relationship between the elected minister and the public servant, the prerogative of the former not only becomes paramount but supersedes the very rules that have traditionally governed the modus operandi of the public servant; so that there is, invariably, no real protection against the rampaging and fiercely determined minister or other high official bent on having his or her own way.

True, there may be institutions – like the Public Service Commission, or the Judicial Service Commission ‒ to which the disadvantaged official might resort, though, in the case of Guyana,   precedent provides sorry little encouragement regarding the likelihood of a minister being subjected to public sanction. In such instances the system has become pretty adept at obfuscating issues and sweeping the indiscretions of high officials under the carpet.

The whole culture of various forms of unseemly behaviour on the part of ministers and other high officials of government leaves deep and ugly scars on the image of government and attracts justifiable criticism from persons who seek to hold their government up to higher standards. When, at that level, discipline takes flight and an absence of standards becomes the order of the day, those mechanisms (in so far as there are any) that exist for the purpose of reining in the delinquents must kick in to ensure that discipline and high standards are restored, otherwise, the entire political system becomes hopelessly compromised.

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