Policing the public sphere

Following the German philosopher of democracy Jurgen Habermas, we view modern liberal democracies as integrally sustained by a “public sphere” constituted by citizens conducting implicit and explicit discussions with each other – often through the press. By definition, the various opinions proffered on any given subject implied, and accepted, differences. And furthered the goal of freedom.
The only conditions to the discourse were that it be conducted “rationally” (ie, reasons must be offered for claims made) and civilly and that the interlocutors accept that they were on a common endeavour.
Today, with the explosion of social media fuelled by the communications revolution, the public sphere has expanded exponentially to a point where it threatens to overwhelm rationality and civility as citizens attempt to get their views across on matters adjudged to be pressing. This has become very evident in this period leading up to the elections scheduled for March 2.
As has been the case in every election since the 1960s, race/ethnicity has remained as the most salient cleavage along which the people of Guyana choose to align themselves when it comes to voting. While political leaders have been accused of “exploiting” this cleavage, the iron law of rational choice leads them ineluctably to follow the inclinations of the populace.
In such a milieu, political leaders have a very grave responsibility to ensure that they do not pander to racial or ethnic fears and stoke them further with inflammatory rhetoric. Race and ethnicity are a special type of cleavage since they go to the essence of what constitutes identity in the modern world and which actuates a type of politics that evokes very stark fears of survival and even extinction. These are not fears that can be trifled with. We have witnessed the consequences of such fearmongering in each of the continents during the past three decades, and it is our belief that none of our leaders really wish for us to go down that path of no return.
Referring to the present elections campaign, the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) – with the mandate to ensure “civility and rationality – observed last week: “So far, it’s early days as yet but we have actually identified two incidents that took place where language was used which we thought was language used to excite the crowd on the basis of racism.”
The ERC has tremendous powers at its disposal for dealing with ethnically incendiary exhortations by politicians. It is explicitly mandated by Art 212 (D) (w) “to make recommendations on penalties, including the prevention of any political party or any person from participating in elections for a specified period, to be imposed for any breach of the provision of the Constitution or any law dealing with ethnicity”.
Unfortunately, the ERC has shown itself to be very reluctant to carry out its mandate in a manner that will demonstrate to the political class that it means business. Almost a year ago, the ERC received a complaint that the hiring practices of GECOM – an institution critical to the conducting of free and fair elections in Guyana – was ethnically biased in terms of the staffing of its Secretariat, since 90 per cent of its staff was from one ethnic group.
With such an adverse impact on other ethnic groups, the ERC refused to insist that GECOM demonstrate that its hiring practices were fair. It simply noted that the Human Resources Officer refused three requests to respond, and took no action.
Just as pertinently, it refused to take any action against the then GECOM Chairman who denied employment to the most qualified candidate for the position of Deputy Chief Elections Officer (DCEO). He applied his casting vote with the three Government Commissioners against the applicant Vishnu Persaud, after declaring he found the latter to be “a shifty person, who had lied about his qualifications”, when in fact he had never met the individual.
Because the stakes at this juncture of Guyana’s history are so high, the ERC has to become much more pro-active in ensuring that “racial genie” is not let out of the bottle.