The chairperson of the People’s National Congress Reform, Ms. Volda Lawrence, has rightly been taken to task for the statement she delivered to the Region Four District Conference of her party a week or so ago. Notwithstanding her apology to ‘those whom I have offended in one way or another’, it is well known that the political perspective she exhibited is prevalent within the two major political parties in Guyana. Indeed, the only problem a good chunk of this country has with her is that sufficient care was not taken to prevent the statement from getting into the public domain. The General Secretary of the PPP, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, as his position required, was quick to condemn Ms. Lawrence, but emanating from a similar mind-set and perhaps even more dangerous, was his 2015 outburst at Babu John, which resulted in him being hauled before the court and in the Media Monitoring Unit of the Guyana Elections Commission concluding that his so-called ‘anecdotal illustration … came over as a calculated exploitation, for political purposes, of the known fears and insecurities of one section of the population – East Indians.’ Mr. Jagdeo was too brash to apologise but in any case only his side, the side that now largely condemns Ms. Lawrence, would have believed him!
Ms. Lawrence is an ethnic entrepreneur who lives in a permanently (very long term) deformed liberal democratic state. Two parties control over 75% of the voters and she is chairperson of one of them and does what is necessary to keep her base solid and ready even if this means skirting the boundaries of the law. Countries ethnically configured the way Guyana is breed this type of people who view power as a zero-sum game – them and us – and construct, nourish and exploit ethnic concerns in the attempt to keep their side perennially in control of the state. The political people in such countries tend to publicly proclaim adherence to liberal values but since their reality is made substantially different by their deformity, if they act upon important liberal proposals, e.g. ‘we will democratise or privatise the state media’, the results are likely to negatively affect their ethnic mobilisation goals, so in practice they are forced to behave contrary to what is required for the gradual development of a liberal democratic state. Ms. Lawrence’s behaviour falls into that category and is not new: utilising state resources to win compliance and votes, for example, is now a national pastime.
The deformity of which I speak is not benign or useful in any way and in general terms there is a near national consensus that the caustic political relations to which it leads have largely been responsible for Guyana’s poor condition. Ms. Lawrence’s charge, even to the lowest level of the state, provides an opportunity for us to view how costly, illiberal and deceptive this deformity could be.
The recently concluded local government elections were relatively free and fair and the PNCR accepted them as such, but listen to Ms. Lawrence’s charge to PNCR councillors. ‘We don’t have to wait no three years comrades there are mechanisms for us to go back to the polls. You see this long, long story, me ain’t able buse and cuss and waste me time; I lash you in you head and done the story. Done the story. … Comrades; we have to run things in those NDCs… the same ones they say we lose. Before the three years out we must have another election … We will use the law, which is on our side and we will take it back’ (SN: 30/11/2018).
Coming from the chairperson of the dominant party in the ruling coalition, what are we to make of the regime’s constant lecturing us about the importance of democracy and local democracy: is local democracy only important when it is in the control of the PNC? How, particularly in those constituencies they won, are PPP/C council members to assess any controversial input made by PNCR members – as genuine contributions or efforts at subversion? What means must these PPP/C councillors now devise to detect and prevent the subversion of their policies and possible overthrow? By eschewing discourse, what level of participation do we expect minority councillors to be allowed?
Actions speak louder than words and even if her presentation was not made public, given the low level of political trust in Guyana, should PNCR councillors attempt to accomplish their mandate their actions would been dissected. The only difference now is that it would be extremely difficult to deny their intention, and long-term damage has been done to political relations in many, if not all, local areas. Just imagine the consequences for many local communities if the PPP/C is giving its councillors a similar directive or retaliates.
When Ms. Volda Lawrence turned to party organisation, her approach reeked of the backwardness that must be dysfunctional in a relatively open society. ‘When they get into office they say nobody didn’t put dem deh, dey put deyself…If you can’t work for the party resign, …. when the leadership say this is the party’s position, say Me ain’t gotta follow dat, so dey abstain and all sorts of thing.’ …. all of you who are going to take up office are part of the winning ticket for 2020.’
What we have just heard is how an illiberal, archaic, Leninist vanguard party that brooks no dissension operates and this is difficult to square with her government’s supposed objective of fostering a creative and innovative environment and people. In a liberal democratic system, faced with party leadership hostility, bargaining, crossing and re-crossing the floor on specific issues or permanently regularly occurs because ethnic suspicions are not as severe and political representatives are personally responsible to their constituencies first and party second (or third where political regions are strong). In modern times in liberal democracies, constituencies elect their representatives by way of primaries and at the most extreme level even allow those who simply declare themselves to be for a party to win and become that party’s representative. Therefore, the chairperson’s subtle threat that if elected councillors do not strictly follow party dictates they will not be part of the 2020 team should not have been made by an official of a party that pioneered electoral primaries in Guyana!
In response to critics, Ms. Lawrence claimed that her intention was to ‘shed light on the issue of attracting support from non-traditional bases… Comrades, politics is a numbers game and … The PPP is afraid of social cohesion but we must embrace it.’
For the entire length of their existence, both the PNC and the PPP have tried but failed to win over a significant number of the other major ethnic group and this is largely because they are attempting to achieve two conflicting goals: keep the loyalty of their ethnic base intact and win over the other side. Given the deceptive nature of our deformity, Ms. Volda Lawrence may not realise that neither of these parties should be afraid of social cohesion. Good intentions and costly administrative edifices may conceal but they cannot contain the fact that our history has demonstrated that social cohesion is not going happen in the current ethnic competitive arrangement.
In the absence of meaningful political co-operation national resources and efforts have been and will continue to be wasted but the deceptiveness of the deformity rather than making the contradiction between theory and practice more clearly requiring solutions, allows ethnic entrepreneurs to delude themselves that they are doing their best in the interest of the entire country!