Democratic imperatives

Democracy, like most value concepts, can only be appreciated within its historical context and development. Our political institutions were directly imposed on Guyana by the European colonial powers, first the Dutch and then Britain. In the latter, the development of democracy was coeval with the development of Liberalism, and for most Britishers the two were coterminous. They are not and the famous distinction by FA Hayek is apropos: “Liberalism is concerned with the functions of government and particularly with the limitation of all its powers.
“Democracy is concerned with the question of who is to direct government. Liberalism requires that all power, and therefore also that of the majority, be limited. Democracy came to regard current majority opinion as the only criterion of the legitimacy of the powers of government.” As we debate the form and substance of our democracy, it would do us well to keep in mind the distinction between “democracy” and “liberalism”.
In Britain, Thomas Hobbes, theorising in the chaos of the English Civil War contesting the absolute monarchy that included the beheading of a king, proposed that men emerged from a “state of nature”, where there is no power or state to enforce rules, and life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. He posited a social contract in which men give up some of their rights to a powerful central authority that ensured that the peace is kept. While Hobbes emphasised the liberty of individuals, and the need for social and political order for that liberty to be meaningful, he posited that an all-powerful State was necessary to achieve this. Our elected post-Burnhamite dictatorship State sadly was not allowed this leeway.
However, while in the older British tradition, the freedom of the individual in the sense of protection by law against all arbitrary coercion was the chief value, in the Continental tradition the demand for the self-determination of each group concerning its form of government occupied the highest place. Guyana and its six peoples” have been caught between these two Imperatives. In Britain and its colonies, two questions were posed when the issue of democracy in the context of political participation arose – who were “the people” and once selected, how were “the people” to rule?
A problem arose when the country incorporated “culturally plural societies”. JS Mill, for instance, speaking from a Britain sure of its “British” national identity, could pronounce with finality that the free institutions of democracy were “next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. There are undoubtedly countless issues that the institutionalisation of democracy will pose for Guyana; but the most important one will be to deal directly with the implications of the ethnic divisions in the society to answer the question, who are “the people” who would govern?
On the second question, how are “the people” to rule, as explained above, the classical Greeks tried “direct democracy”, where, facilitated by their small numbers, every citizen could vote on every issue in one gathering. If more than fifty per cent of the citizens voted for one particular position, then that became the position of “the people”. Majoritarian politics was born. This direct method of voting had to be later abandoned in favour of “representative democracy” due to the larger number of citizens and their wider geographical dispersion. The representatives were supposed to “re-present” those who elected them.
A further innovation was introduced by the British, to accommodate local sensitivities and ensure that the residents of “counties” could be ensured of their own representatives. This was the procedural basis of the “Westminster” system of democracy where several candidates compete within a constituency for a seat to Parliament and one of them could win with a plurality of the votes cast – First Past the Post (FPTP). In Guyana, however, the departing British imposed the Proportional Representation (PR) model of elections and we have been caught in its contradictions ever since. After 2000, we altered our system to combine PR with a nod to constituency demands. Maybe it is time to revisit this arrangement.