Friday, February 23, 2018

To govern ourselves

My friend and Tapia colleague Michael Harris referred in a recent column to my advocacy of an executive presidency, with concomitant adjustments to ensure accountability of the executive, representativity in the legislature and an end to the politics of the Supreme Leader.

For Michael, a head of state should "embody, represent and speak on behalf of" the nation, remind us of our "best and highest ideals", and "assist in bringing together" a multi-ethnic society. While deploring, as I do, the present subjugation of the President to the Prime Minister, he seemed to attribute the conflicts arising out of the present system to the powers exercised by the President in his sole discretion.

If I have misread Michael, I apologise. But I disagree on several counts. What are these powers? They are the power to appoint a Prime Minister, the power to appoint the Leader of the Opposition; the power to appoint independent senators; and the power to appoint a prime minister if there is no constitutionally available candidate.

The first two powers are in the President's sole discretion only because, until the appointment is made, there is by definition no Prime Minister for him to be subjugated to. He is also constrained by the Constitution itself to appoint the persons with the most and the second most support in the House of Representatives. As for the appointment of independent senators, the President's power over public affairs only extends as far as that of his appointees, which, given the automatic government majority in the Senate, is zero.

The power Michael seems to consider divisive is the fourth. The only occasion when it became an issue was the 18-18 split, when President Robinson was forced to choose between two potential disasters, Manning and Panday, and did so on spurious, pseudo-moral grounds, triggering triumphalism in one party and deep resentment in the other.

It is true that if Robinson had had the moral authority Michael describes, he might, with the help of the population, have shamed the two man rat into accepting one of the possible political solutions, for example power-sharing, either simultaneous or consecutive. But Robinson, burdened with his own political baggage, did not and could not have the moral authority that would have induced the population to set reverence for him above their tribal concerns.

But at least we ended up with a government, and it is far from clear how the situation would have been better if Robinson didn't have the constitutional discretion to appoint one.

In any case, the situation will not occur again (unless Kamla or Rowley goes the way of Chávez just after the next election) because there is now an uneven number of seats in the House of Representatives. But the conflicts remain.

Michael attributes the President's executive authority to borrowing from the American system. Not so. It is a linear extension of the monarch—Governor General ethos of our colonial past. In the mongrel constitutions of the English-speaking Caribbean we see specimens of each phase of that phony evolution— Governor General, local Governor General, un-elected President… (Guyana, with its elected president alongside a prime minister, may look like a step forward in this progression, but is in fact a special case of mongrelism, of which I'll say no more here).

(I prefer the word "mongrel" to Michael's "hybrid", because "hybrid" denotes conscious effort to produce more useful species of flora or fauna, while "mongrel" evokes unplanned, promiscuous coupling).

Nevertheless, it is useful to situate this country in the context of the evolution of the concept of head of state. In Europe it corresponded to a desire for a substitute for the monarch as the kind of father-figure embodying the attributes Michael finds attractive, without the absolute authority. In the western hemisphere it reflected the decision to jettison the monarchy entirely, the solidarity and patriotism supposedly inspired by the throne existing already, since it was the reason for revolution in the first place.

The supposedly inspirational qualities of an appointed head of state are just rhetoric. I don't think there is a country in the world where they exist. Political conflict is as bitter in countries with ceremonial presidents as anywhere else.

To round off my argument it should be possible to show a case of a highly respected president who didn't achieve miracles of national unity. Well, we have such an example. Our second president, Noor Hassanali, was a man of unimpeachable integrity, devoid of political bias and respected by everyone. Despite this, he left the country as divided as he found it.

The western hemisphere model implies a system in which you elect someone to manage the country, and your reverence is for the country and the office, not for its holder. If you don't like him/her, and most of the time almost half the population doesn't, you know that if you work hard enough you can throw him/her out next time round. Meanwhile, you play by the rules.

A republic, in short, is not simply a state whose head is a president rather than a king. It is a state whose polity proclaims the determination of a people to govern itself without the trappings of divine or pseudo-divine authority. In our case, to reach that stage requires the jettisoning of the idea of a non-political president. We cannot do it by patching our present ill-fitting garment. We have to wash we foot and jump in.