The election of Kamla Bissessar as leader of the United National Congress (UNC) is a welcome change in Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean politics, and a profound indication of democracy at work in a political party. On this International Women’s Day, her ascension to that position takes on added significance, given not only the groundbreaking process by which Ms. Bissessar earned this distinction, but also the fact that she displayed integrity by standing above the fray of gutter campaigning initiated by her male opponents. Now if she can ensure that the level of people’s participation remains healthy within the UNC and its leaders are always held accountable to the membership, then the UNC can set a much needed precedent for Caribbean political parties.
In any event, the lesson for Guyana is evident – both the PPP and the PNC must open up themselves to people’s democracy by having their leaders elected directly by their members at nation wide elections. In the case of the PPP, the concept of democratic centralism must be jettisoned and given that Freedom House is unwilling to do so because those who rule the roost want to protect their cushiony positions, PPP members must send a strong message to the center. For it is only when party members directly elect and hold top tier leaders accountable that political parties in Guyana will begin to become more responsive, transparent, pragmatic and people centered.
Besides, unlike the developed world, third world treasuries apparently provide a direct avenue of enrichment for politicians. And in their rush to become the nouveau riche, those who swear to be guardians of the constitution often hold themselves above its sway while remaining untouched by their governments. Therefore political parties need to also set up internal mechanisms to address all forms of corruption and nepotism as a prerequisite to ensuring that leaders do not engage in such practices at the national level. Without such effective mechanisms in place, entities such as the PPP and the PNC, which have a history of ethnocentricity and mutual suspicion/hostility, would find it virtually impossible to operate in a coalition.
Additionally, coalition building needs trust and the capacity to arrive at potent, implementable decisions, amidst differences. Thus a coalition government would only be viable, when the politicians are grounded in honesty, integrity, accountability and transparency while fear, hostility, suspicions, and the cocoon of infallibility and untouchability ceases to exist. For then the battle for control of the means of personal enrichment and jobs for the boys would never be on the agenda nor would uninhibited individualism and partisanship party interest hold sway.
So how do we nurture this law premised, value-laden politician, committed to multiethnic politics? Enter the AFC.
At its launch, the AFC stirred the imagination with the possibility of cultivating this new politician. In fact, some argued that Khemraj Ramjattan and Raphael Trotman possessed the potential to be such politicians. However, that party has mundanely underperformed since its good showing at the last elections. Perhaps this is why the Stabroek News (Guyana Review: Feb. 26, 2010), somewhat harshly concluded, “Today it is a zombie.”
Undoubtedly the AFC has missed several critical opportunities in its short existence.
Firstly, both Ramjattan and Trotman should know that winning over PPP and PNC supporters is a psycho-social marathon rather than a media sprint per se. Both should know that each major party emotively uses the ethnic card to maintain core support and thus the need to convince each party’s supporters that moving to the AFC would not open the door for ‘the enemy’ but rather that such support would lead to a government underpinned by politics that eschews ‘us vs them’ and operates on the basis of ‘all of us’.
Secondly, in keeping with politics of a different kind, rather than joining the PNC in a dossier on human rights, the AFC should have embarked on a longitudinal compilation that included the years of PNC government as well. This way it would have emphatically portrayed both parties as guilty of human rights abuses. Instead its alignment with the PNC on this issue has trapped it in the web of the partisan politics of the PPP and the PNC and sent out an unintended signal of bias to Indo-Guyanese, thereby making it more difficult to win over that section of the electorate.
Thirdly, the AFC could have been more expansive and inclusive in its Diaspora outreach. Instead, while recognizing the imperative of setting up overseas support groups, the AFC selectively did so in only three major cosmopolitan centers. This limited approach would have squandered the Diaspora goodwill that embraced the AFC’s launch.
Fourthly, while it is heartening to hear about the AFC’s fan out campaign and opening up of new offices, the fact is that by now, outreach should have become nationally extensive and continuously intensive. After all, as both Ramjattan and Trotman should know, people will complain bitterly about the government and/or the political party to which they give loyalty and will even vow to sever those links and transfer support to an alternative, but historically such rhetoric has not been matched by accompanying action. Thus the AFC needs to wage a multi-dimensional, multi-sensory, intergeneration campaign, within every niche and across all boundaries – ethnic, gender, age, education, social strata, defining interests and employment. This campaign must be integrated both horizontally and vertically so as to maximize impact and cost effectiveness, and must be aimed at breaking down emotive and psychological barriers, altering deep seated perceptions and redefining political cognition – in short an all out effort to win the battle for the minds, hearts and consequently the votes of the electorate, with nothing taken for granted.
The AFC must simultaneously convince the electorate (by word and deed) that it opposes all forms of entrenched privilege, inequality, bias and prejudice; that it embraces meritocracy, transparency and accountability; that it is committed to sustained socio-economic development that benefits all the people; that it will eliminate fear – generated by both crime and politics – and make all citizens feel safe and secure; that it will seriously tackle all forms of social pathology such as corruption, bribery, nepotism and cronyism; and that it offers an alternative that is inclusive and open but that provides no haven for anyone who operates beyond the pale of the law and/or normative values of morality and ethics. At the same time the AFC must be careful about embracing political expediency especially when such embraces can have an alienating effect on significant sections of the electorate.
Also, the AFC must get a firm handle on its public persona. For one it needs to recognize that mouthing rhetoric simply to win transient points is a double sided sword and that it must therefore make public pronouncements that are substantive and resonate with Guyanese in general. In the same vein the AFC must desist from putting its foot in its mouth as it has done on a number of occasions, the latest being Ramjattan’s charge that the Hansard had been tampered with, and for which he had to apologize in the national assembly. Above all else the AFC must consistently speak with one voice, regardless of who is the messenger, so that it does not present messages that are half-baked, contradictory or uncertain.
Finally, the AFC must recognize that women are not only the nurturers of society but also the keepers of its norms, mores and values. Thus for society to remain value laden and normatively healthy, male-centric politics must be eschewed and women must be empowered to become significant decision makers and policy implementors. The case of Basdeo Panday in T&T reinforces the reality that a gulf between words and actions continue to inform Caribbean men’s attitude towards women. For the AFC the Gomatie Singh episode has left a bitter taste in the mouth. Now that party must ensure that it is not tainted in its attitude towards women with the same brush that has generally daubed Caribbean political parties. One way in which the AFC can provide this surety is to emphatically, insistently and consistently focus on the issue of violence towards and victimization of women and children, a fast growing plague in Guyana and the Caribbean. This is a focus that will certainly resonate with all Guyanese if not selectively handled.
In effect, the AFC must continuously display a willingness to make the hard choices, intensely engage in the hard work required and frankly and honestly answer the hard questions. Otherwise the wind of change that sailed Kamla Bissessar to the leadership of the UNC may very well bypass the AFC.
PS: This article was first published in March 2010.