Decentralisation along the Swiss model may be the solution in Guyana
Stabroek News
April 16, 2002

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Dear Editor,

Ms. Sohan Jaikaran wrote eloquently and passionately of her dreams of a more enlightened Guyanse society (SN 03/11/02). Some of Ms. Jaikaran's dreams may not be realizable, (e.g. "I dream that the hearts of our political leaders will scintillate with love, compassion, fraternity and combined optimism" - historical records are yet to shed light on such happenstance in mankind's history) but some may definitely be.

It must be noted that there is nothing wrong with idealism. The major point, however, is to realize that the "dream phase" is the essential first step of the way to achieving your idealized society. If every dream were just that, we wouldn't get anywhere. Like countless progressive and developed countries, we have to take the ideal, look at it, put our collective thoughts to it and come up with a blueprint for its implementation.

The central problem facing Guyana is that we have two major ethnic groups who are naturally (under the present political arrangements) vying to control the centralized power structures in Georgetown. One of the most frequently recommended solutions by experts of ethnic conflict and ethnonationalism is for the afflicted country to institute real decentralization of power away from the center towards strong, almost independent, local governments in combination with power sharing arrangements, of which there are quite a few. The theory that undergirds this idea is that when liberty grows organically, from the existing institutions of small communities, it can endure even in a potentially fragmented society. It has been tried to much success in ethnically polarized societies, like Malaysia, South Africa, India, Switzerland, etc. If we look particularly at the example of how Switzerland, for centuries, has been able to obtain democratic liberty amidst its entrenched diversity (there are severe religious and "nationality" differences), we can be able to appreciate how simple and ingenious this decentralization idea is.

However, I hasten to add that, since each country is unique, we can only capture the general principles of the example and put it into practice, cognizant of our particular Guyanese reality. Sovereignty, according to the Swiss Constitution, resides in two places: with the individual canton (can be translated roughly to "large geographic community" or "state"), and with the Swiss people. The vast majority of decisions affecting an individual's life are taken at the cantonal level-or even at the local level, that of the town or "commune." Each canton determines its own level of taxation, administers its own funds for health, construction, infrastructure, education and most police. There's the assumption that the people elected locally have the competence to govern on any matter, unless the Federal Parliament expressly disagrees with a particular issue. Of course, any such decision must be ratified by both houses-the lower, which is proportionate to population, and the upper, in which each canton receives an equal voice, regardless of size. Then that result must be ratified by a national vote of the people-the other locus of sovereignty in Switzerland. No amendment to the Constitution may be made in Switzerland without a referendum; any law may be annulled by popular vote; additions to the Constitution typically start with popular initiatives, sparked by ordinary citizens' petitions and ratified by their vote. The federal government and many cantons must submit each proposed new tax to direct vote of the people.

It has been said that Switzerland constituted living proof that the market economy and liberal society is still feasible in the contemporary "welfare states" of Europe. With her traditions of decentralized government, freedom of thought, participatory democracy, middle-class virtue, and economic self-reliance, Switzerland had managed to avoid most of the ethnic polarization and class hatred, mass impoverishment, and harsh financial inequality which had torn apart other nations in the wake of World War I. The complex interaction of decentralized institutions and democratic voting creates an atmosphere that makes ideological compromise possible. A simple reason for this is that the nearer you are to a political decision, the more responsibility you take. The two mainstays of sovereignty in Switzerland-the canton, and the larger collective masses of the people voting-reinforce each other, preventing the Confederation from fragmenting into a bunch of squabbling microstates, or coalescing into a majoritarian mass democracy as is our present condition in our land of six peoples.

It seems to me that if the leaders of Guyana are genuinely concerned with ending the racial strife in that country, they should seek to learn from the Swiss and embark on a massive decentralized restructuring in Guyana. When Africans, for example, have tangible and visible evidence that their elected officials are present and are engaged in representing their interests on the local level psychologically and politically, (food, security and power) the psychological need that prompts the ritualistic violent fight for the "big prize,"- the presidency and a winning ethnic party-would be severely diminished. Once we have reached this stage, we can begin to implement more enlightened procedures to reduce the remaining inter ethnic strife to negligible, livable proportions. I am convinced that it can be done. What we have now (the winning ethnic party appointing tokens from the other race) is farcical, it will never work and the people know this. So we should advance from the dream stage and do the arduous task of building a more structurally enlightened nation that will force us to live amicably together.

Yours faithfully,

Dev Prakash,


Caribbean Indian Times,