Not a democratic society?

Stabroek News
August 11, 1999

In a letter last week Mr Aubrey Norton put forward the proposition that Guyana is not a democratic society. He said [please note: link provided by LOSP web site] the government was "undemocratic, unresponsible to the concerns of large sections of the society, discriminates against public servants and all Guyanese (regardless of ethnic origin) who it perceives to be its opponents". He said that if Guyana was a democratic society the Auditor General's report on the importation of stone by the Ministry of Works would have resulted in the resignation of the subject ministers.

There is no such thing as a perfect democracy, various societies approximate more or less closely to the democratic ideal, all have their faults. Certain basic criteria would be widely agreed as an indication of the level of democracy in a particular country. The first of these would be the ability to change the government by free and fair elections. If that does not exist most people would agree that the government is not a democratic government. The l997 elections were certainly flawed but it is not alleged that they were rigged. Indeed no one party had control of the electoral machinery so rigging would have been very difficult. This machinery needs to be further strengthened and improved to overcome the legacy of the past and to enable more efficient elections to be held, up to and including the counting of the votes and the declaration of the results. The lack of managerial competence plagues nearly every institution in Guyana, it is not surprising that the elections machinery was no exception.

Another criterion that many would rely on as a measure of democracy is the existence of the rule of law. Are people held without trial, do they get fair trials, are there any political prisoners, can citizens exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement. Using this criterion this government would rate highly, Guyanese are as free as they have ever been, there are free media, no political prisoners and people can travel within or out of the country as they wish.

There are credible complaints of discrimination of one kind or another. The solution to this, based on consultation, is the setting up of institutions like a Race Relations Commission, which has been recommended by the Constitution Reform Commission, and a fair employment bureau which can investigate complaints of alleged discrimination and provide remedies where appropriate.The two parties have also raised questions like the composition of Land Selection Committees and the appointment of statutory boards in their dialogue process and are seeking an agreed solution.

Mr Norton also raised the issue of power sharing. That is, of course, a separate issue based on the argument that the Westminster model of democracy may not be appropriate in a society in which voting is largely ethnically based. This newspaper has itself more than once advocated power sharing as an experimental solution, on a trial basis for a specified period. Indeed we supported Dr Rupert Roopnaraine's imaginative proposal that the terms of the Herdmanston Accord be amended to provide that for the last two years of what would have been the five year term of this government there be a national government consisting of all the parties in parliament. Regrettably neither of the two main parties accepted this proposal.

There is one other point that should not be ignored. Two major problems that will bedevil any government in this country are the level of poverty and the breakdown in the educational system. Because of the former, people are suffering and having a hard time. As a result, there is little leeway and a government will always be blamed first for the lack of jobs, low wages and so on. Because of the latter, skills of all kinds are at a premium and getting things done quickly or at all is increasingly difficult. In fairness it must be remembered that this government inherited a shattered economy and an educational system that had been in distress for some time, though there had been some improvement in the economy from l989 to l992. If there was more prosperity there would be less friction and tension.

By the standards of democracy that exist in developing countries worldwide we do not believe it can fairly be argued that Guyana is not a democratic society.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples