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

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

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