For the new Guyanese politics

Following the 2006 elections, I have been pointing out that, because of differential emigration by our different ethnic groups, our demographics have changed to create a “nation of minorities”. Without the previous inbuilt Indian Guyanese majority, the PPP had therefore lost its advantage in our ethnicised voting populace. The implications for majoritarian democratic politics were demonstrated in 2011, 2015 and 2020, when the PNC and PPP alternating governments could claim they had “multiracial” support.
Conceding their ethnic cores, they had to attract voters outside their base in order to win elections on their own. Or coalesce with another ethnically-identified party, as the PNC did with the AFC of Ramjattan and Nagamootoo.
But could they win on their own if viably identifiable ethnic parties are absent? As with the present AFC after its PNC partner obliterated its Indian Guyanese support with Granger’s unilateral sugar industry fiasco. The trope of common “working class” interests has been jettisoned.
The PPP won in 2020, not with a coalition, but by using the classic methodology of liberal democratic politics – crafting a programme and leadership structure to attract voters from across the divide. As has been the practice, it claims to be a “multi-racial/ethnic” party, which has raised all the old questions. Are the leaders drawn from all or most of the various racial/ethnic blocs that constitute our polity? Do their proportions have to roughly mirror the population? Will they represent the interests of all groups explicitly? Should those interests be subsumed under some notion of a “national” interest? Then who defines that “national” interest? And so on.
The problem is that, in Guyana, the parties had always taken special pains to include individuals from all the major race groups in their executives, but they were invariably dismissed as “tokens”. Parties also crafted “national” inclusive manifestos, but the implemented programmes were evaluated as benefiting their “own” constituency inordinately”. The unfortunate 2015-2020 experience of the “Indian-dominated” AFC by the “African-dominated” PNC solidified that view. Even when, between 1992 and 2006, externally conducted surveys showed that, overall, the PPP government’s programmes benefited African Guyanese more than Indian Guyanese, they came under armed attacks for over a decade.
It is clear that voters are getting signals as to which party better represents their interests – which invariably turns out to be racial/ethnic. One signal is the ethnic identity of the top leader of the party. We saw this playing out in the AFC when, with Trotman as leader in 2006, most of their votes came from Afro/Mixed voters. While with Ramjattan and Nagamootoo at the helm in 2011 and 2015, they attracted more Indian Guyanese voters. Ethnic signals are conveyed during the “bottom house” meetings and, more recently, over social media explicitly, or by the use of code words that the people understand.
But in the new, fluid voting scenario of no inbuilt ethnic majority, and with a razor-thin gap of 7000 votes between the two parties, we see that a swing constituency can be courted to win elections. However, they will have to follow the logic of this new political reality. Firstly, they must be seen as explicitly addressing the interests of the several constituent groups outside their core.
In terms of the “token” representation charge, there is a good model in the US, where the Democratic Party has specific “caucuses” to articulate various “ethnic interests” – theirs, African and Hispanic. These caucuses meet outside the ambit of the party, to discuss and aggregate positions that affect their constituencies and represent them back to the party. There is no shame in this, or apologies to be made. It is now conceded that in addition to the old “representation of ideas”, there is the need for “representation by presence”, especially for those who have been excluded, or have experienced unique situations.
In Guyana, the major ethnic groups each have their perspectives on their interests to be represented. “Representation by presence”, by its operation, has its own liberating potential. There are some who sincerely want to belong to “non-racial” parties (where one individual can speak for all), but we cannot create this unicorn writ large soon in Guyana – or anywhere else.
We have also suggested that “Ethnic Impact Statements” precede and succeed all Government initiatives – as, for instance, the house lots’ distribution, scholarships, and the various and sundry “grants”. We have to work with the material we have: politics has to be pragmatic in the philosophical sense of the word.