In one of the early parliamentary engagements after the last elections, Finance Minister Ashni Singh offered a simple but ultimately profound analogy: Guyana is now in ‘Uncharted waters’. If there were any doubters, the present parliamentary engagement over the budget should have disabused them of their scepticism.
For the first time in living memory the Opposition, armed with their newfound majority, was able to actually impose cuts on the government’s proposed spending. In situations where the participants are now creating new traditions in such a key component of their nation’s governmental functioning, great prudence is demanded from all parties. In accordance with our parliamentary traditions, the opposition parties had to give notice as to the cuts on particular ‘line items’ they would be proposing.
Forewarned, the president utilised the mechanism he had created to initiate discussion and dialogue – the Tripartite Talks – to negotiate with the Opposition over their proposals. And herein lays a danger of the precise form of governance we have now been bequeathed, where the executive and the legislature are controlled by different parties. With its accentuation of the “separation of powers” model, the United States’ experience is quite illuminating on this issue.
Since it is the national budget that is being scrutinised, it is the hope and expectation that the principals would be making their proposals from a national perspective. But in reality, the temptation to play politics and pander to partisan interests, are often irresistible. In the US and in other ‘minority government’ situations ,‘pork barrel’ politics have become the norm, as politicians trade and direct spending cynically to pander to ‘the voters back home’. Invariably, the country suffers.
Guyana cannot afford to go down this road. As a very poor country, we do not have the luxury of spending just to buy votes. Our spending must be strategically deployed to give the greatest benefits to the greatest numbers. Also, we would do well to remember the origin of the phrase “pork barrel” politics: it is from a US pre-Civil War practice of giving slaves a barrel of salt pork as a reward and requiring them to compete among themselves to get their share of the handout. We do not want to institutionalise a form of politics that have our people fighting among themselves for the “spoils”. It is not by accident that ‘spoils’ are most often the rewards of war.
Our politics, in the pre-and post-independence era, have unfortunately evolved in a quite factionalised manner, with very negative consequences. Even without ‘pork barrel’ politics, because of our cleavages, there are persistent complaints from all sides of the divide, that one side or the other is being ‘favoured’. If the bargaining in the new dispensation becomes explicitly based on partisan interests, then this negative feature will become even more entrenched and guarantee we do not progress as a nation. “Pork Barrel” politics is inevitably zero-sum politics.
In the present budget debate, it will be very difficult to erase the suspicion that, for instance, the Linden electricity issue is not an instance of ‘pork barrel’ politics. To refuse to support a subsidy for the entire country at the expense of that for a single community – where justification has been offered – is emblematic of the political genre.
But all is not lost. Even in parliamentary democracies, there have been several instances of ‘minority governments’ being able to govern. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the political actors to find ways to make it work. The unaccustomed power to make cuts in the budget requires opposition leaders to act responsibly, not to oppose for opposition’s sake or cut for cutting’s sake.
For instance, the Opposition could have acknowledged the positive role of the government in the electricity subsidy over the past decade. To do so would be to encourage governments to craft unrealistic budgets to give the impression that it would make concessions when pressed. Or even worse, to propose heavily reduced spending in areas known to be favoured by the Opposition for leverage. This tit-for-tat technique is self defeating for the country.