Deepening democracy - the way forward Editorial
Stabroek News
August 21, 2002

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When one is in a seemingly unsolvable situation there is a desperate search for even the faintest glimmer of light on which to build hope. It is therefore very welcome that the situation of political conflict has turned for the moment to the meaning of particular words and concepts - power sharing, shared governance, inclusiveness or adjusted system of governance, words and ideas which focus on the increasingly invoked process of democratisation.

Shared governance, the most frequently used term, seems to be defined as the participation of other actors including the political opposition and civil society groups in some of the processes hitherto normally performed by the government. This reflects Article l3 of the Principles of the Constitution which states that “The principal objective of the political system of the State is to establish an inclusionary democracy by providing increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision making processes of the State, with particular emphasis in those areas of decision making that directly affect their well being”.

For a long time democracy has been interpreted as free and fair elections, duly monitored, preferably by international groups. The PPP points out with considerable justice that they were denied power over three decades through rigged elections. Now that they have at last achieved power there is deep resentment that several measures are being devised seemingly to dislodge them, first the resort to organized violence which led to the shortening of their first term in office and more recently the demands for constitutional reform which aim to chip away or curtail their legitimate exercise of power.

It is also being contended that the PNC sees current proposals such as shared governance in terms of tactics rather than permanent changes to be maintained if and when that party wins power at elections.

However, whatever be the roots of such attitudes and suspicions on the one side or the other, the constitutional proposals now being advanced fit into the pattern of accelerating global concerns which seek to push democracy beyond the ballot box to processes described as democratisation. Democratisation means that people/voters whether supporters of a government or not are no longer prepared to leave formulation of policy and decision making to the persons elected and in particular those who form a government.

Time there was when voters were content to leave the determination of issues to elected representatives. This is no longer the case. Moreover in the Guyana situation it should be noted that the parliamentarians have not been chosen by the voters but by the party list leader. And this is likewise true of the so called regional representatives, a sub-system which in practice is no more than a gloss on proportional representation through the party.

The demand for democratisation leading to the search for new mechanisms for the empowerment of people does not originate with political parties. Indeed, political parties both in developed and developing countries tend to be wary of such developments, as diminishing their role and influence. The demand derives from worldwide factors including in particular the revolution in communications. Both global and local media ensure that every protest is echoed far and wide.

There is an increasing people awareness that government and formal institutions are not sufficiently responsive to their problems. There is always the letter columns of the press, although we should not forget that it was not so long ago when this important safety valve was frowned on and discouraged. Now there is in addition easy access to the powerful electronic media. We almost take it for granted that a villager makes the journey to Georgetown, not to seek out a parliamentarian but to speak his grievances into a television camera and to viewers everywhere, an altogether more powerful mechanism than say the ombudsman.

In the capitals and big cities of the developed countries vast crowds have assembled from time to time in recent years to protest in particular meetings of the G8, the Heads of Government of the most industrialised countries.

Such protests are for the most part not organised through formal groups such as political parties or trade unions but by personal contacts through the internet and cellphones. So effective have been these protests that the last meeting of the G8 had to be held on an inaccessible Canadian mountain top.

Dealing with such deepened political awareness among the peoples of the world, the UN Human Development Report points out that the demands focus on two issue areas - accountability and wider citizen participation in policy formulation and decision making.

While the PPP as already mentioned looks askance at shared governance and related proposals as attempts to loosen its own legitimate grip on power it is to be noted that the party participated in the consensus on constitutional reform in which several constitutional changes and additions which move in that direction were adopted.

That party’s diehards should therefore ask themselves whether there is anything in shared governance for them. There is. It should be realised by now that power achieved through the ballot box, cannot alone cope with the situation of tension which derives from the historic ethnic insecurities on both sides and which can so easily be manipulated into disorder and conflict.

The PNC cannot be said to be representing a minority in the usual sense of that word. Moreover its role is amplified by its virtual control in terms of electoral support of the capital city, the disciplined services, the public service and certain important trade unions.

Moreover while international support including possible intervention can ensure continuity in office, it cannot easily alter in the short run the unstable balance of forces in the society.

Hence the overarching need to give attention to constitutional proposals which hold out the promise of national consensus.

Responding to the important proposals by civic groups and in particular the call for shared governance, Dr Roger Luncheon has recently pointed out that the existing constitutional reform proposals provide for shared governances and the government position, if this is understood correctly, is therefore that as a first step such reforms should be implemented.

The question then is, are the reform provisions of the constitution which have already been agreed important steps towards shared governance.

The two focal points identified by the UN Human Development Report namely accountability and participation of new actors in decision making can provide useful tests as to whether this is so.

Certainly the proposed Ethnic Relations Commission (with its associate tribunal) and the other Commissions on (l) Indigenous People, (2) Women and Gender Equality, (3) Rights of the Child and (4) Human Rights - provide for participation in their membership of a wide cross section of civil society groups. Moreover these commissions whose membership will in important respects be determined by the National Assembly will perform functions and make decisions over wide sectors of national life which would otherwise have been performed by central government.

The determination of the composition of the Service Commissions through meaningful consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, and consultation with the National Assembly and the representative professional associations likewise in those important areas enables participation in what has hitherto been the exclusive powers of government. Such power is now shared with other actors including the opposition.

On the other hand the test of accountability in terms of the existing reform provisions yield less positive results. “Accountability is about power (states the UN report)- about people having not just a say in official decisions but also the right to hold their rulers to account”. In this respect the UN report points to the role of parliamentary committees in ensuring accountability.

However, in this area, the reform process, except in respect of the Sectoral Scrutiny Committees, has left the National Assembly very much a creature of the President and his Cabinet. Much of the current debate on constitutional matters points to the urgent need to correct this deficit in parliamentary power. In this respect the Parliamentary Sectoral Scrutiny Committees are a key element in the shared governance provisions of the constitution as are the service and other commissions.

Nevertheless, as Dr Luncheon has maintained, the present reform measures are an important start towards shared governance. Against the background of the current exchange of ideas is it not possible for the civil society leadership to work towards a consensus which would include the following elements:

The Opposition should be persuaded to return to the National Assembly on the following basis:

(a) a Parliamentary Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform as envisaged in the Final Report of the Oversight Committee should be appointed at once. As envisaged by the Oversight Committee, the Standing Committee should have the power to co-opt, including in this instance leaders of civil society.

This Committee will give priority attention to resolving the present deadlocked situation on the scrutiny and management committees. It will consider as a matter of urgency measures inter alia for giving to the assembly powers of initiative on legislation. It will further consider the widening of the Dialogue and institutionalising it together with a monitoring unit as part of the parliamentary process. This committee will also consider all other proposals for shared governance.

(b) Urgent action should be taken for the earliest appointment of the Service Commissions and all the other commissions.

(c) Debate should be initiated on the early establishment of a National Law and Order (or security) Commission as recommended by the Caricom Summit at its recent meeting in Georgetown (This should not delay other informal measures to secure consensus on security).

(d) The implementation of the above measures should be time-bound, say within six months.

Who will now run with the ball?