Politics by other means
For very good reasons, there is a great deal of discussion about ‘protests’ in Guyana. It is often pointed out that this practice is in the very best ‘democratic’ tradition: a protest for one reason or another is going on in the US or Britain on any day of the week. But if we look past the rhetoric to the ground reality, even cursorily, we would notice that in the countries on which we model our ostensibly ‘democratic’ practices, the established political parties are not out on the protest lines, as in Guyana.
One does not see Congressmen or Senators in the US, for instance – as representatives of their parties – out in the streets protesting against the government of the day. They utilise the institutions of governance they crafted together, and of which they are part and parcel, to settle their differences. The development of political parties that can form governments in the modern era had led to the distinction between ‘civil society” and the ‘state” within the political system.
Protests are a means for ordinary citizens as members of civil society, to have their views heard about their dissatisfaction with some aspect of the status quo. A most crucial part of that status quo in a democracy, as far as the power relations that maintain it, are the political parties that compete for the authority to govern the state on behalf of the people. Citizens’ protests, to a lesser or greater degree, invariably suggest a failure of the political system, from the perspective of the ordinary citizens on the protest line. In those instances when political parties are engaged in protests, unless they have been locked out of political participation due to rules which were crafted to exclude them or which have been subverted to accomplish the same end, they are signalling that they are failures.
During the period when elections were ‘fiddled with’ or ‘rigged’ or ‘manipulated’ in Guyana, one could understand the need or even the necessity of the Opposition political parties protesting. The question is: why now?
There are some in the Opposition that claim the present political system locks them out of the effective decision-making process. Others have proposed, including the major partner in the major Opposition grouping, that the political system is indeed inappropriate for our society.
Our political system is governed by a constitution which was given an extensive overhaul in 2000. While the dissatisfaction with the political system developed very soon after, in 2002 when the PNC proposed a model of ‘power sharing”, the developments in 2000 demonstrated that the constitution has very clear procedures for altering its rules.
It might be instructive to review the circumstances that led to the recent protests in Linden and Agricola to better understand the centrifugal forces threatening the integrity of our political system. Linden and Agricola both voted overwhelmingly for APNU last November, with the former township withdrawing its strong support for the AFC and the PPP from the preceding elections. Based on such support from across the country, the Opposition ended with control of the legislature, and in so doing validated the integrity of the political system.
APNU, however, immediately ceased its calls for altering the constitution to change the system of governance, but accepted the call from the Executive to participate in formal negotiations to settle differences in priorities. The protests in both Linden and Agricola both stemmed from the refusal of the smaller Opposition party, the AFC, to work within the present dispensation to seek change. The mobilized citizenry in both protests thereafter saw politicians from both Opposition parties lending support.
Parliament is again in session and both of the latter parties are in attendance – demonstrating that they are paying lip service to the constitutionally sanctioned political system, even as they lend support to its undermining by organised protests. This is a dangerous course in our historically divided polity, since we have seen that such protests can very quickly careen out of control and exacerbate those same divisions.