Our perception of presidential power will largely determine not only how we behave towards the individual and how they will act toward us but also how we will act if, perchance, we ever hold that office. How Guyanese presidents have strode the political stage has left many of us believing that the presidency is an autocratic institution that enables the incumbent to do as s/he chooses. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are formal checks upon presidential authority: the legislature, the courts, the executive, local authorities, the media, civil society organisations, other states, international law and institutions, etc. Certainly in the United States of America, but even in a highly centralised political system such as ours, power is dispersed among many actors who must be properly placated if the presidential agenda it to be successfully accomplished. For a US president to succeed, Richard Neustadt, whose 1959 book Presidential Power (often revised and still being widely used today), observed and pioneered the idea that he must have three qualities: the power to persuade, a good professional reputation and high public prestige.
Thus while even today most Americans view the president as the all-powerful authoritative man who governs the country as he pleases the contrary is closer to the truth ((http://www.jim-riley.org/414%20Power %20to%20Persuade.htm). In 1952, General, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, who had been a frontline commander in Europe during the Second World War, won the presidency of the USA and the outgoing president Harry Truman is said to have commented ‘Poor Ike! … It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.’ Today there is Donald Trump, a business tycoon used to getting his own way, who in frustration with having to consult and compromise has adopted the tactic of seeking to delegitimize (‘fake news’, ‘so-called judge,’ ‘deep state,’) the very institutions the cooperation of which he needs to properly govern and which his predecessors have all had to placate.
Thus according to Neustadt, a ‘president derives his power not only from constitutional authority, but also from his reputation and prestige in Washington, the country and abroad. … The president is required to influence those around him with political persuasion to achieve his political agenda. …The president must use his knowledge of persuasiveness and prestige …to get his way.’ (http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/ the-limits-of-presidential-power-a-citizens-guide-to-the-law). By the latter he did not meant trying to change the political views of interlocutors but that a president must get others to accept that ‘what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interests.’ Persuasion, then, is ‘more like collective bargaining than like a reasoned argument among philosopher kings’ (https://sites.middlebury.edu/ presidential power/tag/richard-e-neustadt/).
Neustadt recommended that the president ‘should think and act prospectively, so the decisions he makes today will aid his ability to persuade tomorrow.’ After all, the higher the president’s professional reputation the easier it would be for him to negotiate and persuade other leading politicians, the legislature, senior bureaucrats, foreign ambassadors and other delegates, and organs of civil society, etc. Finally, the president must seek and maintain high public prestige: essentially this is related to how the public and private sectors view the president, and this sentiment about the president is largely dependent upon how those who represent the people, particularly those who represent them in parliament, view the president.
Neustadt’s observations are best established in relatively ethnically homogenous societies where democratic institutions are dispersed and strong, but they can be observed in all presidential systems. From Forbes Burnham to David Granger, there has not been a president in Guyana who has not had to persistently overcome and in some cases succumb to the brakes put upon their authority by other power brokers. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Burnham’s entire political existence was based upon his capacity to appreciate and negotiate one such external brake in the era of containment. I have experienced on more than one occasion brakes being place upon presidential aspirations. In relation to former president Bharrat Jagdeo, in 2004, President Jimmy Carter very subtly made this point: ‘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 make any substantive moves to implement the National Development Strategy, share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from a party list on a proportional basis.’ The recent teachers’ strike is another example. Yet while all democratically elected presidents must and do negotiate and compromise, Guyana’s political system is democratically suboptimal: it does not properly fit the country’s ethnic differentiation. For example, it is unlikely that any president will be able to get the positive commitment from a satisfactory majority of the population to maximize social output. Also, political freedom can best be expended by means of consultations and persuasion where representatives must account for their stewardship to geographic or interest constituencies. Where the process is monopolized by single oligarchic ethnic political parties, freedom and the capacity of the people to negotiate their own development path is restricted. Furthermore, this government has gone further than its predecessor in refusing collective bargaining even to its own constituency largely because it is afraid of the results of its not being able to broker a national consensus on public service emoluments. Guyanese governments have not been able to generate maximum trust and commitment from the population and so all the talk of establishing, for example, an inclusive, independent public service, is simply talk!
I was motivated by my recent discourse with Mr. Tacuma Ogunseye to write this piece. He claimed that he was not aware that when one says that the president ‘should’ act on any important decision it can be taken for granted that he will consult with others before doing so. Thus, when I called upon the president to have constitutional reform and shared governance, I should have made it explicit that he needed to consult even with the party to whom his project is to be directed. Over many decades theory and practice have demonstrated that presidents, particularly democratically elected ones, must and do consult those they believe have sufficient power to hamper their agenda. Therefore, even if his position was substantial to my argument, it was not unreasonable for me to assume that a seasoned political commentator and activist such as Tacuma would have absorbed this assumption much as he did my meaning that the president should act according to the law although I did not say so.
By his own admittance, Mr. Ogunseye has an essentially autocratic view of the presidency and what makes this particularly interesting is that his political socialization –barring a military tinge maybe – has been not too dissimilar to those who now stride the corridors of power. I hope that I have clarified that, of necessity, democratically elected presidents must and do routinely consult and compromise with those who they believe have the power to thwart their agenda.