We are a democracy, we are told. We go through the process of free, fair and transparent elections which is supposed to translate into good governance that reflects the will of the people. This, says the developed world, is the best possible way.
However, I recently witnessed an election at a committee level that left me asking the question: But is it democracy?
A representative for a state body had to be elected so the stakeholders, Indian- and African-Guyanese, met in a room to vote. They were mostly educated professionals. Before the vote was taken, they all chatted with each other and there was a genuine air of camaraderie among them.
Then came the vote. You need not have bothered. You could have done the “ethnic arithmetic” as President David Granger called it and decided the outcome. The votes were cast along racial lines. There was no crossover, no deviation, and had there been international observers there, they would have pronounced the elections free, fair and transparent, ie, democratic.
Directly after the announcement of the winner, everyone fell back into chatting with each other. They had participated in the democratic process and they accepted the outcome. However, it is obvious that the camaraderie displayed is a thin veil that lies just above the surface of the race divide. It’s no surprise that it comes apart on occasion to spill over into political/ethnic violence.
Was democracy ever intended to legitimize racial voting patterns? The system was developed in homogenous societies with minority groups where it works fairly well. These countries now insist that it is the best way and it is exported to the world as a one-size-fits-all solution when it hardly helps our situation, for instance.
Democratic voting norms and a Westminster style of government actually work to widen our political divide by providing a legitimate façade for race-based voting.
Here, democracy means that the largest ethnic minority, Indians, most likely wins unless, as happened last May, there is a coalition that allows the next largest ethnic bloc, Africans, to get enough crossover votes for a majority.
Elections are never about issues and because there can only be one winner in a race-based battle, it is not surprising that ethnic unity is all that matters in the political fight. African-Guyanese justify the political skulduggery of the 1960s against Premier Cheddi Jagan that brought Forbes Burnham to power and, even today, excuse Burnham’s electoral rigging as being necessary to holding that power.
In the race/political struggle, the Indian supporters of the PPP continue to face physical and cultural violence and Jagan himself, perhaps unwittingly, aided and abetted the idea of Indian invisibility when he gave credence to the view, as far back as the 1960s, that Indians needed to subsume their identity for the national good. This fitted well with his belief in Marxist ideology which placed class rather than race as the most contentious social and political issue.
In this, Jagan was, ironically, acting as an ethnic leader. He could only have addressed such terms of nationhood to his supporters. It was Burnham who could have asked the same of his, Africans. And he never did. In fact, as the kabaka, Burnham appeared before them as their African king.
He was always a proud African whereas Jagan continued to take the line of dismissing his Indianess as unimportant in favour of his utopian view of the world as classless and raceless.
What has happened since to the Indian psyche is at best confusion and, at worst, shame and self-hatred. Even today, it is the self-hating Indian, the ones that dismiss their Indian identity, who finds social and political acceptance. Their apologetic stand about their ethnic identity plays well to the African-Guyanese struggle for political power, and the appeasement policy of the PPP towards African-Guyanese is based on that self-same apologetic stance.
It is clear that democracy as it works in homogenous societies cannot work here. It cannot be transposed whole onto our situation where two major race groups are contesting for a win that would always allow one to be dominant over the other. Cosmetic accommodations of cohesion, as decided by whichever race group is in power, can never address the deep-seated fears that have arisen on both sides of the divide.
After 50 years of independence, we should be matured enough to want to create a style of governance that gives equitable representation to every ethnic group. This is the only accommodation that will deliver a fair and just political system that will work for Guyana.