PEERING BENEATH THE SURFACE OF PROTEST ACTION
A deeper analysis of the protests in Linden would reveal that it went beyond the electricity issue. The protests followed the decision to increase electricity tariffs in Linden through a phased process, and not by some 800% as some groups are mischievously peddling, but the thinking behind the protests had other sources.
It was purely because of a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of what the State proposed to do that led to the protests. The electricity merely provided the occasion for the stand-off.
The electricity issue was the main surface factor. The deeper causes were related to national attitudes towards the provision of State services and towards the results of the elections of last November.
There is an aversion in this country to paying increases for government services. This is not anything new. It has existed for some time.
People will pay more for food, for transportation, for private services, for public events and all manner of other things. But when it comes to paying more for government services, it is always a problem. This is why the government has been forced for so many years to subsidize electricity and water to what has now become unmanageable levels.
Guyanese throughout the country have to understand that in a market economy, economic costs will eventually have to be paid for services. Somehow Guyanese accept this fact when they go to live in foreign countries. But at home they become stuck to the position that certain public services are an entitlement and they should not have to pay increases for these services. It is an attitude that will have to change if Guyana is to progress.
People will eventually have to pay close to economic rates not just for water and electricity but also for land and for services provided by local authorities such as waste disposal.
At the heart of the protests in Linden was this attitude which said that the government should not be increasing the cost of electricity. As such, the unrealistic and unreasonable position was adopted that no increase should be charged.
However, when the protests began persons within the very community were forced because of the protests to pay more for almost everything because the town was shut down and supplies were not getting in. Yet no one was saying that they were not paying more for these goods and services whose prices had spiked during the protests. But having received cheap electricity for years, the decision of the government to reduce the already astronomical subsidies was met with stern resistance.
The second core reason for this opposition was the misunderstanding of the results of the elections. Somehow the opposition was of the opinion that they won the elections and that therefore they could dictate what happened in the country.
Winners are decided by the rules of a competition. The rules of our elections pronounce that the winner of elections is the party that wins the highest number of votes. The prize for winning was the seat of executive power. The PPP won 48.5% of the votes, eight per cent more than their nearest rival. Had they won 2% more of the votes, it would have been a landslide.
However, the opposition has deluded itself into believing that because they command a majority of one in the National Assembly that it had significant power in the country and that its will had to prevail.
With each passing day, reality is stepping in and the opposition is discovering that its majority of one is not that powerful after all. For one, this majority of one does not grant them any executive power; secondly while they can block government legislation, they effectively cannot cut the Budget of the government. And no amount of motions they pass is going to be binding on the Executive.
Hopefully they will eventually come around to the realization that their principal role is not to exercise executive power but to oversee it. Hopefully they will come around to a better understanding that the separation of powers does not allow them the latitude they are pretending they have.
It was because the supporters of the opposition in Linden were under the impression that it was the opposition who had the upper hand in the country that the protests were so sustained and vociferous.
The final core issue that can be mentioned that was at the heart of the decision to protest was the caricaturing of the government as being inflexible and only willing to bend under the rod of pressure.
This may have been true of the Jagdeo administration but it is not true of the Ramotar presidency. In fact one of the main distinguishing features of the Ramotar presidency has been its openness and its wiliness to discuss and compromise with the opposition.
It must be recalled that no pressure had to be applied for the government to make public what was being demanded for years by this newspaper: the release of the major contracts. When the contracts were made public, a great deal of the suspicion about what was signed vanished.
The government also met with the opposition just after the Budget presentation and agreements were hammered out which the government has indicated it would abide with despite the opposition turning around and stabbing the government in the back by rejecting close to twenty billion dollars in spending, some of which has since been restored.
So there has been a gross mis-characterization of the government and this led to a confrontational approach. The opposition is in a time lock. It is operating as if it is dealing with the Jagdeo administration rather than a regime which has been at all times willing to meet and talk.
The opposition must stop acting in bad faith. And some elements in the combined opposition need to become more matured as politicians and understand that their job is to represent those who elected them to parliament and not to settle previous scores they may have with persons in the government.