Ramjattan Gets it Wrong
by Dr. David Hinds

Khemraj Ramjattan's attempt at advancing a solution to Guyana's racial problem, in particular the struggle over political power, is most revealing.(Stabroek News: August 28, 2004). Mr. Ramjattan must be taken seriously because he is being put forward as an example of what the new Guyanese political leader should be. He is said to be in the PPP but not of the PPP, so it is assumed that his view of the world transcends the PPP. Yet his view on how to solve the "democratic dilemma" that results from the fact that in Guyana's racial circumstances African Guyanese are potentially shut out from political power, is hardly an advance on the PPP's.

To his credit, Ramjattan admits that in the Guyanese scenario of "one man one vote is thus undemocratic… it leads to an elective or a majoritarian dictatorship." He then wonders: "How strange!" Well, there is nothing strange in the formulation Mr. Ramjattan describes. What saves majoritarianism from becoming a permanent form of dictatorship in some countries are the absence of permanent, hardened majorities and the presence of potent constitutional and informal checks and balances within the system. Majoritarianism is a dictatorship in Guyana because of the presence of a permanent, hardened majority and the absence of potent constitutional and informal checks and balances within the system.

What is strange is that Ramjattan plays down constitutional checks and balances as a way to solve the problem. Constitutional checks and balances is precisely what the various forms of power sharing advocate. Like the PPP, Ramjattan rejects power sharing on the grounds of trust and lack of opposition. I suppose one can make that case and other similar cases against power sharing in an abstract sense. But the problem Mr. Ramjattan observes - Africans being permanently shut out of power - is not an abstraction. It is a concrete phenomenon that has concrete consequences for the security and ultimate survival of the nation. While the search for solutions to concrete problems must include some degree of abstract theorizing, that by itself could lead to faulty conclusion.

It is precisely the lack of trust that has largely undermined the Westminster majoritarian system in Guyana. Indians and Africans do not trust the party of the other race to represent their interests and to rule fairly. So what is needed is a governance formula that both groups and their respective parties can trust. Nowhere in the world would you find two competing parties that trust each other, but in most countries there are forms of governance that all parties generally trust. This is part of what power sharing advances: both groups would be assured of permanent inclusion instead of one being permanently excluded.

On the question of lack of opposition, Mr. Ramjattan seems to have given very little thought to the subject in much the same way as President Jagdeo who talks glibly about term "gridlock." Again, I have to invoke the concrete. If opposition means attacks on people and their property because of their race, boycott of parliament, opposition to everything the government does, disruption of life and production and generally undermining the government, then let's get rid of opposition as quickly as possible. That kind of opposition has not made the government accountable; in fact it has contributed to the government being almost totally unaccountable. But to get rid of that opposition you have to get rid of the governance system that feeds it. So in changing "the undemocratic elective dictatorship" you are also changing the opposition it spawned. One can never get rid of opposition in a broad sense, that is part of the political instinct, but opposition in different circumstances leads to different outcomes. What is important is the climate in which opposition occurs.

In a power sharing arrangement you are bringing hitherto destructive opposition from the streets and other informal settings into the formal structures. In effect the opposition is being transformed rather than eradicated. All parties are simultaneously government and opposition. The parties in government are forced to battle over policies within the halls of governance, side by side rather that shouting across the hall at each other. Thus opposition is transformed into a springboard for consensus rather than instability.

If the opposite of gridlock is the use of unfettered power to impose policies and laws on a nation without regard to the input of other forces in the society, then let gridlock live. If gridlock means subjecting policies and laws to more thorough scrutiny than presently obtains than gridlock is urgently needed. All governance systems have gridlock built into them, but someone or some party has to activate that gridlock. The US government for example, is perhaps the most gridlocked in the world but it works precisely because the threat of activating the gridlock has more often than not led to consensus between the parties. It is better to have gridlock caused by disagreement inside the government rather than between a permanent government and a permanent opposition.

I submit that Guyana cannot be more gridlocked than it is now. Both President Jagdeo and Mr. Corbin admit this. But as they have done on the question of trust, the PPP are mistaking the consequences of the problem (gridlock and trust) for the cause. The cause of gridlock and lack of trust in Guyana's politics is the persistent struggle over who controls [Executive] power.

The political parties in Guyana do not differ much on the basic needs of the county, and ideological differences are almost non-existence. They however differ on the particulars of policy and the methods of execution in the same way that individuals and factions within the parties differ. This is healthy, for it opens up discussion and examination and subjects the policy or law to a more diverse group of eyes, ears and minds. Unless faced with urgent security or other emergency matters, there is no need to rush things. The threat of gridlock is good for countries like Guyana for it forces the players to be mindful of other views, something that has been absent from the political culture.

Now to Mr. Ramjattan's solution to the ethnic problem. He recommends the democratization of political parties as the answer to the problem. His reasoning is that in democratic parties moderates who would not appeal to race would come to the fore, and "hardliners and extremists…get pruned in such a process". At first glance this looks attractive and makes a lot of sense. But that is where the attraction stops. Political parties are voluntary organizations whose internal operations cannot be directly determined by the state or other outside forces. Their democratization has to respond to a need or incentive to do so. The more democratic the structures of governance, the state and the political culture, the more likely the parties will democratize. But the flaw in Ramjattan's argument is that he wrongly assumes that democratic processes do not throw up extremists. In fact in conditions of racial insecurity and rivalry, the more democratic the situation, the more hardliners and extremists are likely to come to power. Democratization of political parties cannot be divorced from the concrete conditions in which they operate.

But Mr. Ramjattan does something else. He identifies the sources of African Guyanese ethnic insecurity as "the shutting out from power" and an "elective or majoritarian dictatorship". Put another way, from the African Guyanese standpoint, they are shut out from power, which is controlled by an Indian dictatorship. Mr. Ramjattan knows about the reasonable and unreasonable African Guyanese responses to this condition, yet in this volatile situation he tells Africans to wait until the PNC and PPP democratize themselves before they (African Guyanese) can get power. And he tells Indians to wait until the PPP and PNC democratize themselves for them (Indian Guyanese) to stop being vulnerable to the deadly consequences of the "elective dictatorship."

[Editor's Note: All credit to Dr. Hinds and the website where this article was extracted from.]

Septermber 2004
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