Getting it right

Stabroek News
April 1, 2001

Mr Hoyte has spoken. In a televised broadcast on Friday evening he said that the PNC/Reform was prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue to protect the fundamental interests of its supporters. He called for "credible, agreed arrangements, procedures and mechanisms that effectively constrain government and state institutions to act reasonably and justly to all citizens." Such arrangements, he continued, had to offer "cast iron guarantees" that ethnic exclusion would be eliminated. He told viewers that his party was not interested in "circuitous negotiations and delaying tactics," and it expected that there would be an indication of a willingness "to deal urgently and seriously." He then set forth a list of initial demands the solution to which, he said, would "indicate to us whether others are serious about justice, peace and development in Guyana."

In a preliminary response on Channel 69, which we reported in yesterday's edition, PPP/Civic General Secretary Donald Ramotar said that Mr Hoyte had identified areas of mutual interest. His party, he went on, had always welcomed dialogue, and had already made several pronouncements on the demands raised by the opposition leader, although the PNC/Reform should be more specific when it was alleging discrimination. Finally, he indicated that the PPP/Civic would not re-enter dialogue until there had been a return to normal life.

Where this last point is concerned, Mr Ramotar has an undoubted case. While the substance of Mr Hoyte's "demands," were, for the most part not unreasonable, they were delivered in a tone which did not convey a spirit of compromise. In addition, the disturbances on the streets of the past days make true dialogue impossible. Genuine talks cannot take place in an intimidatory atmosphere, and concessions cannot happen under threat of a riot. The PNC/Reform may put forward its topics for inclusion on an initial agenda, but it cannot issue imperatives. For true discussion to take place between the two sides there first has to be the right climate, and the initial step towards creating that climate has to be made by the leading opposition party.

The second step too has to be taken by the PNC/Reform, since up to press time it still had not conceded the election. It cannot postpone much longer the recognition of the government now that the President has been sworn in.

Mr Hoyte is clearly in a hurry to see change both in the forms and style of governance. That is understandable, because he is answerable to some frustrated supporters. However, a spirit of dialogue would recognize that the governing party, which after all came into office with a majority vote, also has a constituency to answer to, even although that constituency is less voluble than the one the leader of the opposition represents. Its members voted for the PPP/Civic, because they did not want to see the PNC/Reform in power, and their fears, frustrations and security concerns are no less legitimate than anyone else's. In other words, any talks will not be easy, and with the best will in the world on both sides, may not proceed with the dispatch which everyone - including Mr Hoyte - would prefer. That would not in and of itself indicate, however, that the cause of dialogue was hopeless. It should also be borne in mind that the kind of reforms which might be required in our current circumstances (other than the amendments to the constitution already agreed upon before March 19 and which were not taken to the National Assembly) could take some time to frame.

For its part, the PPP/Civic as the party in government will have in principle to be prepared to accept a greater diffusion of power in the system than is possible under the current framework. Pat responses, such as that made by Mr Ramotar about discrimination are no longer appropriate. What we are talking about are institutional mechanisms to address entrenched problems.

That does not mean, however, there will be horse-trading for ministries, as Mr Hoyte succinctly put it. The PNC/Reform has already publicly declared that that is not what it is seeking, and this might make it easier for the new administration to make concessions at a structural level which would meet the concerns of the minority. It might be added that an absence of horse-trading could also make those concessions more palatable to its supporters.

What is not clear yet is the mechanism by which the dialogue, now to all appearances accepted in principle by both sides, will become a reality. Sorting out the nitty gritty of the level of the discussions and the agenda may not happen overnight, but it can only be presumed that the first move in the process would be for the President to write the Leader of the Opposition.

Whatever else is said, we are potentially a step further towards confronting our fundamental political problems than we were after Herdmanston. The two major parties, along with other groups in the society, are now talking inclusiveness, although admittedly, what they all mean by that term will not be quite the same thing. Nevertheless, the possibility has now opened up that we could be inching our way in the direction of an arrangement which would supplant 'winner takes all.' If we are, the process will be very difficult, for it is impeded by personalities, history and the lust after power. We are in addition in terra incognita. For right-thinking Guyanese, however, all of that does not matter. They want to see their politicians exercising superhuman patience and persistence in this process, and evincing a willingness to compromise. The parties once again hold the future of this nation in their hands. This time, they should get it right.