Civil society and the dialogue process

Stabroek News
December 22, 1999

The process of dialogue between the People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic) and the People's National Congress (PNC) set up pursuant to the Herdmanston Accord has ended for the year. Mr Maurice King Q.C., the Caricom facilitator, has gone back to Barbados and his contract ends on December 3l, l999. The heads of government of Caricom are to discuss their continued involvement and the return of Mr King will depend on decisions about his legal practice and the putting in place of adequate financial arrangements.

At the press conference to announce Mr King's departure both political parties committed themselves to the continuation of the dialogue. Mr Donald Ramotar, the spokesman for the PPP/Civic, was more optimistic about what had been achieved than his counterpart Mr Lance Carberry, noting that the return of the PNC to parliament had been negotiated through the dialogue. The one lasting achievement, apart from the fact that it had led to the two parties talking to each other again after the post-election protests, has been the agreement to set up an Ethnic Relations Commission which is potentially a big step forward in creating a mechanism to promote good relations and to investigate complaints of discrimination.

The general reaction to the dialogue process from the public has been that it has not yet achieved the broad aims of the Herdmanston accord. There is strong support for it continuing as many important areas remain to be dealt with. Above all, there is the issue of the two electoral procedures to be held within the next thirteen months. There will be a referendum to approve some of the changes being discussed for the constitution. This will be governed by normal electoral procedures. And then there will be general elections. The first step is to put a credible Elections Commission in place and in particular to identify a chairman who will have the ability to do the job. It is now widely agreed, and the evidence in the elections petition has made it quite clear, that the l997 elections were not run efficiently. This is partly because the Chairman, Mr Doodnauth Singh, did not accept an offer of the kind of high level personnel who had helped in the l992 elections. Many of those employed, as shown by the evidence, were not up to the job. Another botched election would open up a nightmarish scenario. There is general agreement, therefore, that a top level chairman is needed and that emphasis must be placed on the recruitment of electoral officers who can do the job and produce the results in a timely manner after the close of polls on elections day.

It is absolutely vital that the coming general elections be transparent and efficiently run and this must obviously be an area of maximum concentration for donor funding and support. The dialogue process can assist greatly in putting a credible structure in place.

There are other areas in which the process of dialogue can make a contribution. For example, the process of constitutional reform is still under way and some compromises may be required to see it through on schedule. This can be facilitated by dialogue.

At his outgoing press conference Mr King urged civil society to exert its influence to shape the course of the dialogue process. He suggested that the major institutions in civil society like the Private Sector Commission, the trade union movement and professional associations should so organise themselves that the political parties would feel constrained to listen to them. He said they should articulate their vision of the future and urged that it was important that people understand "that it is for the people of Guyana and the major political parties, particularly, to be engaged in trying to resolve" the problems of Guyana. He stressed that "in the final analysis you have to make those decisions; you have to talk your problems (through) and you should not expect, and in fact you should resent other people coming from outside to dictate to you what you should do about your own lives and about your country".

The wonderful work done by Senator Mitchell in Ireland would suggest that there are obvious exceptions to this generally useful rule but in keeping with the sentiments expressed by Mr King we are confident that there would be widespread support for Guyanese facilitators, chosen by civil society and acceptable to both parties, to assist in structuring and pushing the dialogue process. Civil society has proved its value more than once this year and there is an opportunity now to play a further vital role.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples