Once again, we’re witnessing frantic handwringing at the expressions of racial cleavages – even in our youths – during the present electoral mobilisation. And this is in the face of the APNU implicitly admitting it was African/Mixed-dominated and coalescing with the AFC’s supposedly “Indian” representation, after the PPP/C’s decades-long “Civic” component, to create “multi-racial” entities.
But what is a “multiracial” party/entity? Is it one in which the leaders are drawn from all or most of the various racial/ethnic blocs constituting our polity? Is it one that has members drawn from all those groups? Do the proportions have to roughly mirror their composition or will any assorted agglomeration do? Or does it mean the interests of all the groups must be expressly articulated and represented? Should those interests be should be subsumed under some notion of a “national” interest? Who defines that “national” interest? And so on.
In Guyana, all parties before ROAR insisted they were “multiracial” by taking special pains to recruit individuals from all the major race groups in their executive and courting voters from across the racial/ethnic spectrum. They constructed “national” manifestos. Yet when elections came around, most people invariably voted for one of the two major parties which were firmly identified with, specific ethnic bloc – the PPP with Indian-Guyanese and the PNC with African-Guyanese. This even occurred with the carefully crafted “multiracial” AFC in 2006, which has now been reduced to “dead meat”.
So, where did these “multiracial parties” go wrong? The question harks back to the root of what constitutes “representation” in our “representative democracy”. The favoured answer, by both Liberals and Marxists, was the “representation of ideas”. That is, once the interests of the group are articulated, then anyone could “speak” for the group. By constructing “national” platforms in personnel and content, both the PPP and the PNC (now with the AFC) claimed to be capable of speaking for “all”. Yet, based on what has transpired before and since 2015, it is obvious the people were getting “ethnic” signals for the fissures to be as pronounced as they are today.
So how do we arrive at “multiracial” politics that can represent all the groups to their satisfaction? First, there has to be acceptance that “multiracial” parties are supposed to only be way-stations to “multiracial” governments. We can look at what took place in the present APNU/AFC coalition for some clues why this failed. From the onset, the PNC – strongly supported by the WPA elements in APNU – gave strong representation to their traditional African-Guyanese base – politically, socially, culturally and economically. The AFC, however, at no time made representations on behalf of the Indian-Guyanese they had brought over to tip the elections for their coalition. A clear opportunity presented itself when the Government went against the advice of their own CoI and shuttered four sugar estates and put 7000 workers on the bread lines. The AFC not only stood mute but supported the unilateral move.
A multiracial/multi-ethnic entity must explicitly articulate the interests of the several constituent groups it purports to represent. This could be done, as by the Democratic Party in the US, by having specific “caucuses” for African and Hispanic voters that explicitly represent “their” people. There is no shame in this approach 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 defining experiences. Can’t we at least go this far in Guyana?
After the AFC’s experience with the PNC, the PPP— which had insisted there must be “trust” generated between itself and the PNC before they would consider working out a modus vivendi with them on any joint governance— can now say “We told you so!” as they work furiously to broaden their representation in other groups. But they should not repeat the mistake of its Civic experiment, lest they again be accused of tokenism. “Representation by presence” by its operation, has its own liberating potential when done openly.
We have to work with the material we have. Politics has to be pragmatic, in the philosophical sense of the word. Ethnic politics does not only arise because of the manipulation of ethnic elites, it survives because it is entwined with the identities and self-worth of the constituent groups. It will not go away.