Partisanship and anger

One of the characteristics of representative democratic politics is that, by definition, it is oppositional. It works by dividing the populace into camps that are supposed to coalesce around common stances on issues that matter to them. The politicians who are vying to represent “the people” in government have an incentive to exploit those divisions when they seek to agglomerate votes by claiming to be willing to articulate the interests of the particular camps. Inevitably, then, democratic politicians represent “part” of the electorate; hence the term “party” to describe their vehicle of representation.
This origin also gave us the word “partisan” to describe the stances of both those who represent and are represented in politics. In the development of our politics, it soon became a chicken-and- egg question as to whether partisanship was an effect or affect of democracy. The dangers of partisanship become obvious when the positions of the various camps are severely dichotomised and the camps begin to see politics as a zero-sum proposition and opponents become “enemies”. Politics become a “no holds barred” affair that can extend literally into civil wars.
In Guyana, it has been our unfortunate experience to have inherited a political landscape in which our camps are divided along ascriptive lines, such as race and ethnicity – which happen to coincide here. In the 1960s, our politics – albeit with external prompting – did almost descend into a violent ethnic civil war, leaving memories and wounds that are never too far from the surface. It is this critical difference that makes our politics more volatile than those of two of our neighbours that have populations and political systems that are otherwise very similar to ours.
Between 1998 and 2008 – just over a decade ago – our politics once again erupted into debilitating partisanship, accompanied with violence. We definitely have not recovered, especially when some of the figures that openly called for violence as a “solution” to our political challenges have been given national awards in the last five years by the PNC-led government. What has been very troubling is the encouragement by the latter organisation of a dominant narrative of the Opposition PPP being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of individuals from their camp in the preceding decade, and as such “should not be allowed” to accede to office, even via democratic elections.
The deliberate use of the word “allow” signals that they are in a position to resort to extraconstitutional means to keep their promise. And this, over the last few months, has led to a deepening of partisanship that is visible in increasingly strident rhetoric, both on the campaign platforms and even more so in the private meetings. The level of anger in the ordinary supporters in the two major camps is rising against each other, and the leaders have to take cognisance of this development and lower the temperature of their rhetoric.
For instance, to the charge that the PPP was responsible for the deaths of hundreds comes the counter-charge that the origin of the violence that is being decried is ignored, particularly it its ethnically directed nature and egregiousness. What is being forgotten is the rationale for the exhortation that we should not forget the past; that we must do whatever it takes to ensure we do not repeat it.
The Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) has made one intervention to call for a reduction of rhetoric that can lead to frayed tempers. Based on our own history, we have seen how the anger generated by such rhetoric can lead to a callusing of the moral fibres of our two camps, and how, in the words of the poet Langston Hughes, they can “explode like a sore”.
Save that, in our case, the pus from the sore can rend our society apart once again. This is particularly ironic, since, at long last, we are on the cusp of acquiring the wherewithal to guarantee that we can move from a zero-sum politics to a win-win one for all the peoples in all our camps.

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