In its latest 2018 report, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), having considered democratic changes in some 180 countries worldwide, claimed that with the possible exception of the African continent, democracy is in decline around the world. While in 2017, most people still lived in a democracy, it is under threat in countries that are home to about a third of the world´s population: USA, India, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Brazil, Hungary, Venezuela, Suriname, etc. In these countries, media autonomy, freedom of expression, the rule of law, etc. have declined to a point where elections are now less meaningful. Ironically, whatever progress Africa has made, it has not been immune from that aspect of democratic decay that has recently had our tongues wagging. In August 2017, the Economist claimed that some 15 countries in Africa had already or were planning to roll back constitutionally-provided executive term limits. And in this respect, Guyana is not unique in this region: Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador, etc. have all gone that route.
Depending on the strength of their democratic institutions, V-Dem placed countries in four categories: ‘liberal democracies’, with free and fair multiparty elections, a robust rule of law, independent media and strong separation of powers between executive, judiciary and legislative branches; ‘electoral democracies’, in which elections are relatively free and fair but the above ‘checks to strongman rule’ are less effective; ‘electoral autocracies’, in which multiparty elections and limited civil liberties are underpinned by repression, censorship and intimidation, and ‘closed autocracies’, in which outright dictatorship is at best dressed in a fig leaf of rigged elections.
Utilising an historical perspective and based upon the above four categories, let us try to resolve the question: where is present-day Guyana? If we begin in the late 1940s, unlike its Caribbean Community partners, Guyana has never approximated to a liberal democracy. We know that colonies cannot be liberal democracies but colonialism can set the stage for countries to so become. No such luck for Guyana, for even while proclaiming their attachment to free and fair elections, etc., the British and their allies were doing everything in their power – frequently gerrymandering constituencies, blatantly buying off voters, changing the constitution to proportional representation, etc. – to rid themselves of the ‘communist’ PPP! The PPP’s fetishism about the media came from those days when the press was heavily stacked against it, publishing all manner of anti-communist garbage.
While those were the days when colonial excesses merged with the containment of communism and gunboat diplomacy with the physical removal of troublesome leaders, this was also the period when, unlike us, our ex-colonial West Indian brothers were making headway in democratic institution-building and governance. With independence, at best, the colonialists left in Guyana Forbes Burnham and his PNC, who ran an ‘electoral autocracy’ in which control of the media and the judiciary was the norm. Perhaps as a result of what he learnt from his patrons, Burnham took little notice, and even made jokes – ‘it’s not those who vote but those who count the votes’ – of those who accused him of elections manipulation.
Notwithstanding great expectations, the fall of the PNC in 1992 was only able to move Guyana from being an ‘electoral autocracy’ to an ‘electoral democracy’ under the PPP/C. The latter I have previously called a democracy without political virtues (SN 30/4/14). It is on the back of one aspect of the democratic deficit resulting from PPP/C rule, that the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) recently came riding into town, took out the perceived main recalcitrant and helped to push democracy in Guyana a little way along the road; but it is sad that it had to do so!
I welcomed the CCJ decision not because it makes it impossible for Mr. Jagdeo to run again for the presidency. I have stated before that I believe that he is such a polarizing figure that the regime would have made great use of him; far better use than it will now be able to make of a transparently chosen new inclusive leadership bolstered by Mr. Jagdeo’s popularity in his traditional base. It appears to me that to think otherwise would be to do the usual and treat Guyana as if it is normal and not to give sufficient weight to the exaggerated but commonplace saying to the effect that if the two main parties put donkeys as their presidential candidates their traditional supporters would vote for them!
However, this will only work if Mr. Jagdeo is able to eschew cronyism and dictation. Huge ifs some have said, and if his recent public chiding of Charles Ramson Jnr. for declaring his presidential candidacy is anything to go by, they may be correct. Certainly a progressive and more democratic public response to the young man coming from the leader of his party would have been to wish – as the PNCR did in relation to its chairpersonship contest – good luck to all who care to run for that office.
Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo would have us believe that he had nothing to do with the CCJ being in town and thus he should be pleased with its decision, for it has made it impossible for him to be press-ganged into the service of the nation by his more ardent supporters. I favour the decision because, although there are exceptions that I hope one day Guyana will adopt, generally presidentialism provides the incumbent with enormous opportunities to amass and project power and fuel a corrupt autocracy. Therefore, as much as is practicable, every effort should be made to restrict and limit its reach.
I said it was sad that the CCJ had to become involved for the reason that in an ethnically divided society such as ours, the continuous reliance on the courts to solve controversial political problems must gradually bring the judiciary into disrepute. But what is even more disheartening is that as we speak, we are not substantially further along the democratic road – we are still an ‘electoral democracy’ in which major manifesto promises are not kept, questionable approaches to the judiciary and elections arrangements abound, secrecy can only be exploded by public uproar, the livelihood of working people is given little premium, the questionable treatment of opponents have many relying on general principles to justify questionable specific acts, and so on. As a result, the unilateral appointment of the chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission and yet to be filled positions of Chancellor of the Judiciary and Chief Justice look certain to reach the CCJ and so it will soon be back again to deal with this unruly political environment that we appear unable to subdue.