The Meaning of Dialogue
by Rakesh Rampertab

THE Dialogue between the President and the Opposition Leader, one may remember, began on April 17, less than a fortnight after President Jagdeo announced that he will “not” be forced to the table because of violence. In fact, the very first two dates of meetings saw violence, and violent anti-government rhetoric were prevalent. On April 25, the second meeting, a handful of PNC supporters were outside the President’s Office chanting, “No talk, more fire” and such like. According to the Chronicle, “Mr. Hoyte did not return the President’s smiles” after the first rounds of talks during which all-17 issues of concerns brought by the PNC, were accepted. The second meeting, both leaders agreed, was a “very fruitful session.”

Today, after some three months, the Dialogue has applied some brakes over disputes about broadcasting amendment laws initiated shortly after the 2001 elections, which Mr. Hoyte has publicly advised media houses to ignore. The Opposition claims that these laws indicate “a lack of coordination or an attempt to pre-empt the work of the committee” established via the Dialogue to assess broadcast laws in general, and should therefore be held in abeyance for now. Is the government’s action “offensive to public feeling”? According to the President, the Prime Minister has not acted in disrespect of the Dialogue. More important, one must remember that these interim laws were forced into being because of the abuse of previous laws, primarily by racist TV talk show hosts such as Benschop (Channel 9), currently being tried for sedition.

Now we have gridlock by the PNC even though the President sent its leader a copy of the changes before they were set in stone. But this should not be a surprise. From the inception, despite the claims of the PPP of wanting “dialogue” before the elections, this Dialogue is, essentially, a PNC agenda. If people are convinced that the Dialogue was needed, and should be supported, then they must find ways to explain the President’s unconditional acceptance of all 17 issues brought forth by the PNC, while refusing to even meet with Ravi Dev/ROAR, who also had a list. If they assume this suggestion to be bent on racial terms, then let’s consider the following six measures (abridged herein) agreed upon between the PNC and the PPP government.  

1)     We agree that the Public Service would be politically neutral and that necessary action will be taken to ensure this result.

2)     Chancellor of Judiciary Cecil Kennard’s term will not be extended.

3)     All pending constitution legislation will be passed within one month of the convening of Parliament.

4)     The PNC/R recognizes the government without prejudice to an election petition.

5)     The two parties accept that violence ought not to be a part of any protest…

6)     The two parties have agreed on an agenda, which included all the issues [17] raise by the Leader of the PNC/R, and will meet tomorrow to settle the mechanism of moving forward.

Of the six measures, the first three are of politically neutral significance (although no. 2 was critical to the PNC because Mr. Kennard was not exactly liked by the PNC). Numbers 4 and 5 are pointless; it is expected of the PNC to recognize the PPP Government, after all, the PPP garnished 52% of the electorate. Therefore, this should not even become a condition of agreement. If the PNC desired to challenge the election result, then let it do so. Violence should never have been an issue of agreement during the Dialogue because both parties accepted, beforehand, that a) they were not associated with post-elections violence and b) neither is being forced into talks by this violence.

Of course, one has to wonder why Dialogue, if it was so important, did not occur before 2001 and why also, it took place immediately following an electoral defeat of the PNC? If the President claims that he went to Dialogue on his own will, then why did he not call for Dialogue before Mr. Hoyte made announcements to his supporters that his party must meet with this government to let it know that the Opposition is “serious” and vying from a “position of strength” (by this, he meant a position fortified essentially by social unrest and violence via anti-government demonstrations)?

Then there is number 6, which speaks for itself; “All the issues raised by the Leader of the PNC/R,” means that 17 issues listed by the PNC/R are to be recognized unconditionally. Of the 17, 9 will, more or less, satisfy supporters of both leading parties. But the remainder, in a Dialogue that everyone agrees is meant to serve Indians, Blacks, and everyone else equally, offers us only one story—that the PNC is running the show. One must be careful of the PPP’s claim that it agrees to these conditions because they have long been primary concerns of the PPP government (listed in the PPP 2001 manifesto). This may be true in principal, but in practical terms, they will be treated in the Dialogue from the immediate point of view of the PNC.

One may not doubt this, but one should not mistake a “national” issue as being truly a critical concern of both parties’ supporters. The PNC listed the bauxite industry because its supporters dominate it. While the government is criticized for the current instable rice industry, few raise questions about the Berbice and Linden bauxite operations that are, despite decades of financial support in tune of billions, beleaguered. This industry alone has requested 25% of the total budgetary money allocated for 2001. One must wonder why, in a dialogue where one participant has a mandate of 52% (majority) of the electorate, he is not discussing their most critical concerns, fight against crime and internal security (local policing, etc.).

The immaturity of the government might be stretched to include its own attempt at installing amendments to Article 127, without prior consultation with the Opposition (as required via current protocol). This amendment would have allowed the President, after consultation but without an agreement from the Opposition after 2 months, to select the Chancellor or the Chief Justice (with the Opposition’s views in mind). The government, sensibly, has retracted it, but not after the PNC rightfully protested. But this may be the end of the PNC’s logical protestation. It has opposed the selection of the Attorney General (D. Singh), the Head of the Public Sector (N. Gopaul), and also the Chief Justice (C. Singh). By June, Mr. Hoyte accused the President of showing “signs of strain and stress” and PPP committee members (for depressed areas) of being “bent on nullifying the clearest objectives” the Dialogue hope to achieve.

If and when the Dialogue gets on track again, it will be, as it started, at the will of the PNC. The government, despite its mandate to govern, cannot hold the PNC to any objectives outside of parliament. This is the reality of Guyanese politics months after the elections and the anti-government violence. Those who are delighted by the idea of a Dialogue should not be surprised with what is written here. In the end, they should not lament upon discovering that one group of people supposedly being represented will still have a few (at the least) of their critical concerns undisclosed and without adequate redress. One must wonder what will be if the Dialogue (“final test” in the PNC’s Chairman, Mr. Corbin’s words) fails, if it hasn’t already?

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