Whatever their faults, our parties, like parties everywhere, do not merely affect, they also reflect the nuances of their societies. So the “fault” – if there is any – might also lie in ourselves. Politicians cannot lead followers wherever the politicians want them to go, for followers will only go in directions they find preferable to the alternatives available: leaders can catalyse but not initiate ethnic reactions.
Political parties arose in a Europe that had already “solved” its ethnic problem by transforming it from a national question into an international one. The people in each state were more or less one ethnic group, with minorities who to “go along to get along”. These countries had completed their national revolutions to form nations out of diverse peoples and were moving onto their participatory revolution or democratisation, where subjects would become citizens with the right to choose their governors. Their welfare revolution, focusing on economic justice, was down the road.
We, in Guyana, in common with many states in the post-WWII era, were forced to confront all three revolutions simultaneously. What was our experience? Firstly, our politicians gave short shrift to the national revolution because of their Marxist orientation, even though we were a textbook case of a “plural” society. They focused solely on participation and welfare but even here ignored the need to adapt our political institutions. Their mobilisation produced an ethnic party system which is qualitatively different from that of homogeneous societies on which it was modelled.
In the former, the party competition is on a single axis – ethnicity— while in the latter, there are many crosscutting axes – class, religion, region [rural-urban], etc. In an ethnic party system, especially where there are two major groups that approach each other in size, the ethnic axis of competition controls the party formation, survival and competition. In homogeneous societies, many individuals vote for parties depending on the parties’ stance on issues. Since all parties have to court this bloc of “swing” votes, the parties’ positions tend to converge and preclude extremism.
In bi-communal ethnically divided societies such as Guyana, voters gravitate to the two ends of the competition axis depending on their ethnic origins. The party’s stand on issues becomes almost irrelevant since it is supported solely as a protector of the group’s interest.
The PPP began as a true multi-ethnic party even though it espoused a socialist non-ethnic line, ie, its members encompassed the main competing ethnic groups and the leadership was seen to represent these sections. The split of the PPP into PPP [Jagan] and PPP [Burnham], subsumed into ethnicity the incipient urban-rural, middle class-lower class dichotomies. The disintegration of the PPP was not only the result of leadership egos: the reasons go to the extreme difficulty in maintaining multi-ethnic parties into plural societies.
After an ethnic party system is formed, multi-ethnic parties are even more difficult to sustain. The greatest pressure arising from “flank” parties or groups which inevitably arise to “secure” ethnic rights. They take strong ethnic positions driving the erstwhile “multi-ethnic” party to respond in order to retain its base. The results are the incompatible group claims. In this system, the competition is not between the two ethnic parties, but with their flank parties or groups
Another major reason for the lack of successful multi-ethnic parties is the difficulty of producing a multi-ethnic leadership structure which has the confidence of the various ethnic groups. The “iron law of oligarchy”, ie that power inevitably accretes in a small elite within any organisations, is perceived to operate. In Guyana, the fear is that one ethnic group would dominate and that the other ethnic leaders would be mere tokens.
In modern-day Guyana, the demographic shift to create a society of minorities now impels the two major parties to appeal for crossover votes, and it is for this reason that most analysts are surprised at the PNC’s studied rebuff of the Indian Guyanese community.
The PPP, on the other hand, has explicitly declared its commitment to courting the “non-traditional” blocks.