Fighting talk: speaking for the opposition, David Granger said President Ramotar walks like a dictator
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Letter from Guyana: the dictator as sitting duck

A constitutional crisis in a divided country. 

They’ve started calling him Donald de Duck. “If it look like a duck, if it quack like a duck, if it walk like a duck, it a duck,” Guyana’s opposition leader David Granger said of the country’s president, Donald Ramotar. Speaking to a crowd of 2,000 people gathered at the Square of the Revolution in Georgetown on a warm November evening, Granger said he was applying what he called the duck test. Ramotar, he added, “look like a dictator, he walk like a dictator, he talk like a dictator”.

Sitting on the shoulder of South America, nestled between Venezuela and Brazil, the former British colony of Guyana is in crisis. On 10 November, using a constitutional provision known as prorogation, Ramotar suspended parliament but did not dissolve it. He declared that under the rules of the constitution, he could suspend parliament for up to six months. The president’s move came in response to a planned no-confidence vote by the opposition, which holds a slight majority in the country’s legislature.

Since Guyana became independent from Britain in 1966, its politics have been driven by ethnicity. Descendants of African slaves – brought in by the Dutch in the 17th century to work on tobacco and sugar plantations – governed the country for nearly three decades, until 1992. After that, the descendants of indentured Indian servants – brought over by the British in the 19th century – came to power, where they have remained ever since. The divide marks the lives of the 800,000 people living in the country.

Much of the population resides on the Caribbean coast. Guyana is an English-speaking country, and although there are Indian and African influences, too, it feels culturally close to Britain. This makes Guyana more like Trinidad than its Latin American neighbours.

Ramotar, who was elected to power in 2011, leads the primarily Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C). The opposition bands together largely under A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), an umbrella group of Afro-Guyanese parties that is led by Granger, a former soldier. Many in Guyana vote along ethnic lines, and as a result parties’ policies often receive less attention. This has done little to benefit Guyana’s economic development: it is one of the poorest nations in South America, with roughly a third of the population living below the poverty line. It has failed to maximise on the gold, diamond and bauxite in its Amazon interior, most of which is now mined illegally, and widespread corruption and weak infrastructure have led to little foreign investment. At the same time, the ethnic divide affects all areas of life. The Afro-Guyanese are slightly in a minority, compared to those of Indian ancestry, and often feel held back in politics and business.

At his Georgetown office, Ramotar, 64, a bald man with a trimmed white beard, insisted he was no dictator. “I have no new powers,” he said. “Our parliament is not dissolved and I can’t rule by decree.” He maintains he would like to talk to the opposition, rather than hold a snap election. “I have given democracy a better opportunity to be exercised,” Ramotar added.

The opposition isn’t impressed. In 2005, a new party called the Alliance for Change (AFC) was formed. It was founded by major players from the two main parties who hoped to bridge the racial divide in politics, and now has MPs drawn from the principal ethnic groups. The AFC achieved a breakthrough in 2011, winning seven seats in parliament and squeezing Ramotar’s party into forming Guyana’s first minority government.

“The aim of the AFC was to largely stop this racial polarised politics,” says Khemraj Ramjattan, a lawyer of Indian descent who helped found the party. He rejects the idea that Ramotar is now keen to talk, and describes prorogation as “breaking a pillar of democracy”.

It was Ramjattan’s party that put forward the no-confidence motion in November, prompted by news that the government had spent £14m without seeking proper parliamentary approval. Ramjattan says he wrote to Ramotar expressing his anger but was told to “haul my ass”.

The president is not popular. He lacks charisma and has been accused of cronyism and corruption. This is good for the AFC, which hopes to attract support from disillusioned voters. “The bad leadership of Ramotar is going to cause much more Indians to come the AFC way,” Ramjattan told me.

David Granger’s party led the rally at which he applied the duck test to Ramotar. APNU gets its support primarily from Afro-Guyanese but has now found common cause with 
the AFC. 

The most likely outcome of the president’s suspension of parliament is that a snap election will be called in the next five months. If the opposition is able to organise in time, it may end the PPP/C’s more-than-two-decade rule. More importantly, it may take the first steps towards ending the politics of stagnation and division in Guyana.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Rex Features
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage