Restoring credibility Editorial
Stabroek News
March 21, 2004

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People have to believe in the comparative honesty of a democratic government before it is seen to have true credibility. Once the electorate becomes convinced that its trust has been betrayed in some critical respect, credibility goes, which in turn will often spell loss of office come election time, as happened to Mr Aznar's party in Spain's general election last Sunday. That party might conceivably have survived the disapproval of the Spanish people about their country's participation in the Iraq war, but it could not survive the conviction of voters that it had manipulated information concerning the perpetrators of the Madrid bomb blasts.

In other words, a perception by the public that a government is guilty of deceit, can in some circumstances be more damaging to its credibility than a perception that it is guilty of wrongdoing - especially if that wrongdoing is admitted. It remains to be seen whether the British electorate will punish Prime Minister Tony Blair for misleading them on Weapons of Mass Destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq in the general election likely to take place next year, but even if he isn't evicted from Downing Street, his majority will surely be dramatically reduced. And in any case, his aura of trustworthiness has already evaporated.

In contrast to most of the major western democracies, we have been singularly undemanding of our government. Or more properly, many of us have been singularly undemanding. If those who govern us betray our trust, they will not be punished in the traditional way, and they know it. While everyone ideally wants transparency and a fair measure of honesty from those who manage the state, in practice we have done a trade-off: if our own group is in government, then it is not held to account; if it is not our group, then that is a different story.

It is why so many Africans did not challenge the PNC during its long years in office, despite the fact that they knew it was an illegitimate government with some state-sponsored thugs of its own; and it is why so many Indians will not demand that the current ruling party take meaningful steps to investigate the allegations concerning a state-sponsored death squad, even although they probably recognize that enough information has been made public to warrant such an investigation. In both cases, the different groups have been, or are, party to the deceit perpetrated by their favoured administration, and as such, therefore, the question of governmental credibility is suppressed.

While unlike the PNC administration, the current government is not illegitimate, it suffers from another defect which is not healthy for a democracy either. Owing to its ethnic majority support base, it feels confident that its voters will not penalize it come election day, no matter what it does. In other words, it is operating without a critical sanction on the exercise of power.

It is true that ROAR and GIHA have joined others in trying to hold the government to more acceptable standards in relation to how the death squad issue should be addressed; but ROAR as a political party does not have a mass Indian following, even although it represents Indians. It is the PPP's supporters who are the ones with the influence, and they are for the most part silent. One suspects that many PPP/C voters feel that as long as the Buxton-centred crime problem went away, it doesn't matter how it went away. Death squad, phantom squad, whatever; at least the problem went away.

What is not understood is the cost attached to having confronted the East Coast crime wave in this manner: the subsequent cost for other groups, the cost for democracy, the cost for society as a whole in terms of standards of decency and the rule of law. Traditionally both major ethnic groups in times of tension have displayed a lack of empathy for the security concerns of the other - during the Buxton crisis, for example, there was no mass outcry from Africans about what was happening in Annandale, Vigilance and Strathspey, although there were certainly Africans who spoke out - and now with the recent mysterious murders of Africans, the same is true of the Indians. We have yet to move to an understanding in this society that a threat to the security of one segment, is a threat to the security of us all.

And so we are left in a strange kind of vacuum: the PPP - still under no pressure from its supporters, and resentful of the fact that given the history of the PNC, it should be the one now being held to account - remaining absolutely adamant that there will be no independent inquiry; and the evidence about death squad activities and official connections mounting up in the public domain, and the clamour growing for some meaningful action to be taken.

In the meantime, President Jagdeo undermines his personal credibility by making ill-advised comments about the death squad issue being a "tiny" problem, and implying that he has more important things to do, like running the country. He has insisted that there is an absence of evidence to give any credence to some of the allegations, an assertion which is so patently at odds with the known facts, that it is difficult to understand how he expects any thinking citizen to take him seriously - even his own supporters, although as said above, they will not hold him to account for it. It really is not doing his image, and more important his general presidential standing, any good. In addition, he is deceiving himself if he thinks that this "tiny" problem will eventually go away; it will not, and the developments of the past few weeks should have made that point, at least, abundantly clear to him.

It is surely time that the ruling party sat down and started to think outside the box, and ask its lawyers, perhaps, to put forward to it possible proposals for resolving this matter. While some kind of independent investigation is probably unavoidable, exactly what form this should take, what conditions should apply to those who appear before it, and what period should be encompassed within its terms of reference, are matters which could be open for negotiation with the combined political opposition; the PNC's ideas on the issue are certainly not the last word. For the country to move forward, the logjam of the death squad allegations has to be broken, and only the PPP/C has the power to do that.

That is the only route to restoring some of the government's credibility with the wider society, beyond the boundaries of its supporters.