Good PNC/R politics and the performance imperative

By Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
May 27, 2001

AMIDST the ceremony and pomp, as Guyana marks 35 years of political independence from the United Kingdom this weekend, a sober political climate prevails, marked over the last two weeks by good politics from the main opposition People's National Congress/Reform (PNC/R), a recent fine governance initiative by the ruling People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government, and an intensification of the performance imperative challenges for the administration.

This give-and-take, which occurred with civility, augurs well for what optimists hope is an emerging fresh era of politics. The new season is traceable to ever since President Bharrat Jagdeo and

PNC/R leader Mr. Desmond Hoyte agreed to the establishment of six bipartisan committees to address issues of immediacy in search of a more secure environment towards development.

If the past two weeks or so provide an accurate gauge of things to come, then we can expect further democratic give-and-take to bring out the best on both sides by way of competition, cooperation and compromise in the national interest. This should mean a further lessening of tensions and political violence.

Heavily criticised for outbreaks of violence that routinely attend its frequent political rallies and protest marches, the PNC/R staged a march through the streets of Georgetown on Wednesday, May 23, that was surprisingly trouble-free. Party marshals were placed along the route to prevent unwanted participation from persons the party had deemed to be `criminal elements'.

In recent weeks, the PNC/R has been quietly trying to dissociate itself from the regular and often vicious acts of violence upon innocent citizens, even as it continues a seemingly unceasing programme of protests over alleged "police brutality," stifling of "press freedom," "marginalisation," "disenfranchisement," and other issues. Most savvy observers have found these causes lacking in substance.

Indeed, the police force has come in for heavy praise from organisations and individual citizens for exemplary professionalism in the face of serious street provocations during and in the aftermath of the general elections of March 19.

Moreover, citizens know that tremendous racial animosity was stirred up during that period by irresponsible exploitation of very liberal press freedom - especially on television.

Regarding the latter, two talk show hosts have been charged with sedition. They are Mr. Ronald Waddell and Mr. Mark Benschop. Both hosted programmes on Channel 9 TV, which is a pro-PNC/R station where, over time, both made incendiary statements that were far worse than shouting fire in a crowded theatre. One of them, for example, even called for the killing of the country's police commissioner. The PNC/R's response was to throw its support openly behind Mr. Waddell with a battery of lawyers and the unusual court presence of Mr. Hoyte. Waddell was a candidate of the party during the March 19 elections. How much the opposition party supports Mr. Benschop is as yet unclear.

While coming out as strongly as it did in support of its party operative might have seemed morally questionable, given the nature of the charge and the agreement with the government for cooperation towards less violence and a toning down of racial tensions, what the PNC/R demonstrated nonetheless was its willingness to support its black constituency without deviation and without fear. At a time when President Jagdeo is under criticism by many East Indian supporters for not backing them as much as they would like on the matter of effectively providing security, this was again good, contrasting politics by the PNC/R.

But late last week, President Jagdeo's government definitively made its own excellent political play on the same media issue. Prime

Minister Sam Hinds, who is also minister of communications, announced that immediate steps were being taken to regulate the television airwaves. He invited the owners of TV broadcasting stations to a meeting tomorrow to discuss the matter.

The decision to regulate the burgeoning television industry was made some time ago but specific actions have been slow in coming - until now. This means that all broadcasters will have to be licensed before they can operate. The license will set out terms of reference about content of material and technical standards. Interestingly, one of the six committees established by the PPP/C - PNCR/R talks deals with the very issue of broadcasting, including regulation and the state monopoly of radio.

No surprise therefore that the PNC/R has been quick to cry foul at what, they charge, is "duplicity" and "bad faith." In other words, the matter of TV regulation should be left to the committee established by President Jagdeo and Mr. Hoyte. On the other hand, the excellence of the government's action was the clear signal of its intention to govern aggressively in the national interest; especially when emergencies of the moment necessitate swift, definitive action.

Had the PNC/R not played their hand in overzealously supporting Mr. Waddell and making the political charge - which has no merit - of a lessening of press freedom, the PPP/C might not have acted. In any event, the point and counterpoint by both parties highlighted democratic politics at its finest level in quite some time.

From a perusal of actions and activities over the last two weeks, it appears that the PNC/R is refining its opposition role to be very scrutinous of PPP/C government actions and policymaking. For example, party leader Hoyte published a letter in the Stabroek

News last Friday strongly praising the recent appointment of distinguished diplomat, Mr. Rudy Insanally, as Guyana's new Foreign Minister. At the same time, he called for the former United Nations' ambassador to give up his post as Chancellor of the University of Guyana. From reports, the new foreign minister had planned to do just that since it is inappropriate for a government minister to be

University Chancellor. But what Mr. Hoyte's letter showed, importantly, was a seemingly revived opposition party offering praise and responsible criticism at the same time. This has been sorely lacking in the past.

A major drawback to all of this, however, remains the unsolved killings of citizens in circumstances that very strongly suggest racial motives. The police are no closer to solving the hair-raisingly vicious slayings of three East Indians, including a ten-year old boy, on the East Coast of Demerara some weeks ago, and before that the killing of an African-Guyanese mother. The passage of time, with no progress of any kind to report, is not dimming memories. On the contrary, it is solidifying anger in the affected communities rather than mollifying it.

Another outcome of political activity over the past two weeks has been the intensification of the performance imperative for the PPP/C government. What is the performance imperative? It refers to the application of constant - often, unreasonable - pressure on political leadership to perform; to alleviate immediate hardships and fulfill promises and expectations of betterment. In sum, there are new stirrings of dissatisfaction from the powerful Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU), which is aligned with the PNC/R, for wage increases. After a bitter strike that was marred by significant violence, an arbitration tribunal had granted a 31.06 increase for 1999 and 26.67 for the year 2000.

The union is now demanding a 35 per cent increase for 2001 and a 28 per cent increase for 2002 amidst criticisms that the performance of its workers has left much to be desired. The government needs urgently to recapitalise the military in the wake of Surinamese and Venezuelan aggressive moves last year in their territorial disputes with Guyana. More money is needed to repair infrastructure on the East Coast of Demerara during political disturbances.

And there is a growing list of other very important priority projects that have to be funded. In the wake of all this, there seems to be emerging again yet another big dispute with the GPSU over monies that are clearly not available. The hope is that both the union and the government have learned from the mistakes of the past where escalation of tensions had led to disastrous consequences for the national economy.

Happy Birthday Guyana!