The future at stake

Stabroek News
March 18, 2001

No one would really dispute that it is a racially polarized electorate which will wend its way to the polling stations tomorrow. No one would really dispute either that, for the most part, the members of the two major ethnic groups will cast their votes according to a template laid down more than forty years ago by a previous generation. In that regard at least, nothing much has changed; the divided society of the 1960s is still with us, and the problems which it generated still have not been solved.

Whichever party therefore discovers on Tuesday that it has won the presidency, will be taking over the helm of a ship where a significant proportion of the crew, if not exactly mutinous, is nevertheless convinced that it is serving under the wrong captain and wrong officers. After the passage of interminable years, and the experience of almost three generations, we know that it is not possible for either of the two large parties to steer the vessel on its own, or command the co-operation of all the mariners on board for the purposes of reaching a common destination.

So here we are yet again, trudging to the polls to decide not where we are going, but which of the candidates representing the two most numerous ethnic groups in the country should go through the motions of trying to get us there. In our context, true democracy is not just about free and fair elections - although that is certainly an important element - it is also about involving the entire crew in a meaningful way, in the operations of the ship.

What is required at this stage are institutional mechanisms to make possible a role for the opposition at the decision-making level in government. What is not required is the co-option of individuals associated with the opposing party or parties into the power structure; that would simply be to make token gestures. The opposition party, qua party, has to be dealt with. No one is suggesting that in a context where both sides of the political divide have demonised the other it will be an easy proposition, but it is nevertheless a proposition which has to be entertained.

Until the results of the election are known, it is difficult to envisage the modalities which might make possible a more rational approach to the rules under which power is exercised in Guyana. The starting point, however, is a will on the part of the two largest parties - their majority or minority status notwithstanding - to amend things. After that, we will be in an experimental mode, tinkering with the framework to find something that is workable in our context. These changes need not be visualised as permanent; they will merely facilitate arrangements ad interim to take us out of our current impasse. Some may be retained in the long term, while others may have to be adjusted to accommodate later changes in the society. In other words, for the time being we should regard our constitution as a work in progress.

Our politicians notwithstanding, the nature of our society will eventually change, and the present party structure will over time be forced to adapt in consequence. Once computers become widespread in the community, and Guyana really becomes linked to the information superhighway, then the relationship of government to the people will inevitably be of a different order. And the standards which will be applied will be those of the international environment. A population which is as well informed as the administration, and which has so many avenues for expressing its opinions cannot be easily ignored and cannot be palmed off with platitudes. More and more a government is going to have to listen to the electorate, and be directly responsive to its views and demands.

In the meantime, the two major parties hold our fate in their hands. We have surely come to the end of the line for a system of 'winner takes all;' it is now for both sides to show courage, and for their leaders to lead in the true sense of that term. What is at stake is our future.