Compromise in politics

If there is one thing all Guyanese would probably agree on, it is that in the last two years following the successful No Confidence Motion (NCM), our politics has become as polarised as it has ever been over the last pre- and post-Independence sixty years. This development does not bode well for our future, since we have witnessed – to our sorrow – that this polarisation can break out into open hostilities to rip our social fabric apart. The US political philosopher Amy Guttmann offered some sage advice almost a decade ago – before their society was ripped asunder because of the polarisation she presciently detected – that our politicians would do well to heed.
“If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy. Unless one partisan ideology holds sway over all branches of government, compromise is necessary to govern for the benefit of all citizens. A rejection of compromise biases politics in favour of the status quo, even when the rejection risks crisis.” In Guyana, that status quo at present is an Opposition APNU/AFC refusing to accept the verdict of GECOM – the constitutionally mandated body with authority to pronounce on elections – that the last elections were won by the PPPC. Even though they have filed two petitions challenging the results, until the courts make a conclusive decision, the verdict by GECOM should be accepted as legitimate.
Guttman went on to identify a source of the problem: “Much of the resistance to compromise lies in another necessary part of the democratic process: campaigning for political office. Though valuable in its place, campaigning is increasingly intruding into governing, where it is less helpful. The means of winning an office are subverting the ends of governing once in office. The effects of a continuous campaign — along with the distorting influence of media and money that it brings — encourage a mindset among politicians that makes compromise more difficult. Systematic rejection of compromise is a problem for any democracy because it biases the political process in favour of the status quo and stands in the way of desirable change.” We see this continuous campaigning operating in Guyana, where every pronouncement by the Opposition APNU/AFC – even on supra-national issues such as COVID-19 – is couched in polarising, tendentious language that further divides the country.
But Gutman proposes a way out of this debilitating mindset: “Resistance to democratic compromise can be kept in check by a contrary cluster of attitudes and arguments — a compromising mindset — which favours adapting one’s principles and respecting one’s opponents. It is the mindset more appropriate for governing because it enables politicians more readily to recognise opportunities for desirable compromise. When enough politicians adopt it enough of the time, the spirit of compromise prevails.” The APNU/AFC Opposition must accept that they are part and parcel of the governance structure in our parliamentary system, in which they have institutional power to keep the governing PPP on the straight and narrow. This power was augmented at the beginning of the millennium by the introduction of a Parliamentary Management Committee, four Sectoral Committees to join traditional institutions like the Public Accounts Committee, on which they have membership.
And the APNU/AFC Opposition must heed this final bit of advice from Guttman: “In general, compromise is an agreement in which all sides sacrifice something in order to improve on the status quo from their perspective, and in which the sacrifices are at least partly determined by the other sides’ will. The sacrifice involves not merely getting less than you want, but also, thanks to your opponents, getting less than you think you deserve. The sacrifice typically involves trimming your principles. We call these defining characteristics of compromise mutual sacrifice and wilful opposition.”
APNU/AFC will have to abandon their presumption that only the PNC – their majority constituent member – has the right to govern Guyana. To accept that if they want to be called “democratic” they cannot reject the democratic methodology of elections to choose the government. This is not even “trimming principles”, but accepting reality.