Rigidity versus innovation
July 28, 2002
Both our major parties are throwbacks to an earlier era and are structurally and philosophically ill-equipped to respond to the crisis in which the nation finds itself. It is particularly unfortunate, given the way events have unfolded, that it is at this particular time that the PPP and the PNC scheduled their congresses, since even when conditions are optimal, these occasions are high on rhetoric and low on introspection. It was to be expected, therefore, that the PPP which understandably sees itself as under siege and which held its congress last weekend, would circle the wagons, just as it is also to be expected that at its upcoming congress the PNC, under attack because elements associated with it (as opposed to the party, qua party) are thought to be connected to the current banditry, will close its eyes to the past, and turn its face from the future.
While the general citizenry did not anticipate that anything new would emerge last week from the deliberations which took place in the J.C. Chandisingh Secondary School they perhaps hoped for signals of at least a subtle shift in outlook. As it was, there was not even a hint of a suggestion about new approaches to an age-old Guyanese political problem; in fact, there was barely the hint of a suggestion that the age-old problem existed at all. In an organisation where the party machine operates so effectively right down to Group level, the lead would have had to come from the top. And while the leadership talked about inclusiveness, the impression was conveyed that this implied the maintenance of the status quo.
“[The] shared governance that is meant by the new constitution is enshrined in the changes that were made,” President Jagdeo was quoted as saying to the gathering. He was reported as going on to tell his audience that for this position to change, it was the delegates and members who would have to make the decision. If the delegates did indeed authorise the party to explore something more radical than it had previously been prepared to entertain, then not a whisper of this reached the outside world. The constant reiteration of an openness to dialogue with the opposition means nothing if it does not carry with it a preparedness to consider the exploration of more radical options for the readjustment of our political framework.
In the circumstances it was anticipated that the congress would also reject the motion to reform its structure, including, among other things, a proposal to have delegates elect a leader, a chairman and a secretary of the party, and to make the leader the automatic presidential candidate. Such a reform would have improved the PPP’s capacity to respond to situations with greater expedition and flexibility in Guyana’s sensitive political environment than has hitherto been the case. The ultimate irony of the congress’s decision is that the very man who stood to benefit most from such reform both spoke and voted against it.
The cumbersome collective leadership arrangement is hardly what the country needs at this time - or even what the party needs, although it stood it in good stead during the long years in the political wilderness. But being in government demands greater plasticity in party terms, than being in opposition.
As it is, President Jagdeo emerges from the congress still harnessed to the PPP Executive Committee, an almost unique situation for an executive president in a modern democracy. Normally a head of government is automatically the leader of his party for obvious reasons.
This anomaly is particularly problematic at the present time because it encourages the perception, firstly, that any commitment the President makes might not be altogether dependable since it is subject to validation by the party; and secondly, that he might not have full control over the implementation of any agreements made. The argument goes that he could have difficulty in some cases in prevailing over ministers who are charged with implementing an accord, since he neither hires them nor fires them. Exactly how much influence the President can exert in such matters is not really known beyond the portals of Freedom House, but the point remains that whatever happens in practice, there is an inherent structural weakness in his position.
Judging by the inflexibility of the party at critical times and on critical issues in the past, it might appear that its collective leadership is often held hostage to the views of its least imaginative members. At a time when we could do with a little imagination on all sides, the Congress has, by implication, endorsed the traditional rigidity of approach. Furthermore, although it is true that the PPP has rejected party paramountcy on principle, nevertheless, the idiosyncracies of its organisation lead to a perception on the part of the public that the fulcrum of power lies not in the cabinet, but in Freedom House, and that what the party decides on any given issue is more important than what the government decides.
Psychologically, this is the worst possible time for the PPP - in particular, its cautious, sometimes suspicious, generally uncompromising Executive Committee - to be asked to supply vision and innovativeness. But that is what is desperately needed. The PNC’s role in the current situation is not in question, but the PPP has refused to acknowledge that it too has had a part to play - largely by default - in the crisis as it has evolved. We now have a highly complex set of circumstances where the state itself is under threat. For the sake of all the people the governing party needs to start with a recognition that its traditional analyses and responses have not worked, are not working, will not work. After that, it can open its mind to the possibilities for giving substance to the concept of ‘inclusiveness.’