Is useful dialogue likely?

Stabroek News
January 21, 1998

Janet Jagan and Desmond Hoyte are by any reckoning the two most important politicians in the country. They have both been in politics for a long time, Mrs Jagan for 50 years, yet reliable reports indicate that in all this time they have never had a proper conversation with each other and in fact know very little about each other. Indeed they are virtual strangers, politically and socially, which is unfortunate as it means they can't begin to understand each other and tend to reduce each other to stereotypes and caricatures (white `foreigner', evil forces).

The settlement they have reached with the three wise men from Caricom involves creating a framework for sustained dialogue between their two parties and setting up a Constitutional Reform Commission to discuss important changes. The parties will appoint representatives to start this dialogue. That is a beginning, but for important changes to occur and relatively quickly it is surely essential that Mrs Jagan and Mr Hoyte should themselves enter into dialogue. They, surely, must participate in breaking down the barriers and searching for common ground, meeting head on, not once but several times, in an effort to destroy the myths and establish their common humanity. Given the level of alienation that exists between them will this be possible?

Mrs Jagan has already shown a willingness to compromise by agreeing to shorten her term of office for two years. Reports indicate that she played an important role in pushing the pact and overcoming the hesitations of some of her colleagues. She is an old campaigner with a lot of experience but this is new territory, being formally in charge and the key decision maker. Given the fact that in view of the recent results she must be confident that her party will win the next elections in 200l is she prepared to discuss a formula for power sharing, perhaps for a five year period. That is essentially the issue facing her and her party. Short of that, of course, there are a number of less fundamental possibilities such as changing the voting system, changing the percentage of votes required to pass certain laws, creating an upper house or senate, giving the regions more power or taking away power to appoint the Chancellor, the Chief Justice and the Service Commissions from the President and giving this, perhaps, to a Committee of both houses of parliament which can hold public hearings to question candidates.

In other words, Mrs Jagan and her party, possibly in the course of dialogue, will have to decide how far they are prepared to go in the interest of crafting a new model. It is an historic opportunity for her to show a breadth of vision and open up the political game.

As for Mr Hoyte what will his strategy be? If the audit confirms that his party has lost the elections, will he seek changes in the voting system, will he go for a model of power sharing? Are his chances of winning the next elections any better or could his party be out of power indefinitely depending on demographic changes? It is essential for him to make a realistic assessment of the situation and to develop his strategy accordingly. He, too, has an historic opportunity to rise above the fray and help craft a new model.

These are difficult issues that require thought, imagination and goodwill on both sides. Is the system we have of proportional representation with the whole country as one constituency viable given the existence of ethnic voting patterns? If it is not, can we come up with something better. The pact has set the scene for change. But to take full advantage of this opportunity will require hard work, give and take and a better relationship between the two leaders which will create more flexibility.