Republic Day address

Stabroek News
February 24, 1998

There were at least two features of President Janet Jagan's address at the flag-raising ceremony to herald the 28th anniversary of Republic Day that will be widely welcomed. First was the tacit holding out of an olive branch to Mr Hoyte and the People's National Congress by the explicit recognition that the decision (in 1970 by then Prime Minister Burnham) to embrace republican status was "the culmination" of an aspiration of the early freedom fighters and that republicanism had helped to build national consciousness. "This is a major ingredient for success in nation-building," the President said. So rarely does either side make even the most grudging recognition of anything the other side has done that this `act of grace' amidst all the recent bitterness must not be overlooked. It can at least be a step towards either side gaining an understanding of what the other represents and has achieved over the years.

The President also placed a welcome emphasis on unity and co-operation. "The bedrock of our policy (is) to achieve what some have said is the impossible, genuine national unity. To achieve the society we all want, we need all-round co-operation to attain our strategic goals of building a sound economy, rekindling the social infrastructure, promoting human resource development, reducing poverty and implementing economic diversification."

The whole society has been badly hurt by post-electoral events. Divisiveness has increased, old fears have come to the surface that there could be a showdown of some kind, economic slow down may lead soon to job losses but above all there is a shattering loss of confidence in the future because of the widespread assumption that the political situation is unstable and there is no obvious solution in sight.

This is a crisis but also an historic opportunity. But both sides must go beyond rhetoric. The Herdmanston Accord has created the opportunity for real dialogue. A Constitution Reform Commission is to be set up to consider, hopefully, sweeping changes. Have both sides opened their minds to change? Can they go beyond the mindset of majoritarian winner-take-all politics? Are they emotionally prepared to discuss major issues like power sharing and constitutional reform with each other?

The audit of the election results that should start within two weeks once parliament has passed the necessary laws will hopefully put an end to the post-election protests one way or the other. But it will clearly not in itself solve the fundamental problems facing the nation. If the audit finds that the official results are more or less accurate the government will face an alienated opposition which has not yet indicated if it will sit in parliament and function as a normal opposition. It may well attend the opening session on Thursday when several Caricom Prime Ministers and the three wise men are expected to be present. But the future is uncertain and a fractious opposition outside parliament would not be conducive to real progress. Moreover, the nation will face another perhaps equally harrowing election not later than the 17th January 2001. If the audit finds that the results are inconclusive or suspect due to major faults in the system, problems with statements of poll and so on there would be the appalling prospect of another election this year if the court so rules on an election petition (in which the audit team findings would be admitted as evidence). This would again put the nation on hold and revive tensions.

Other nations have faced similar problems and attempted to deal with them. We recently examined the example of Fiji. But examples of power sharing and compromises of one kind or another can be found in many nations ranging from Switzerland to Canada (bilingualism) and in the United Kingdom where devolution for Scotland and Wales has been approved by referenda in those countries and is new on the agenda. Our politicians have to go beyond the immediate problem of settling the election results and start thinking about broader issues. That, surely, is what the dialogue is meant to be all about.