We are fighting (literally) to hold elections under our “majoritarian” democratic rule (actually by a “plurality”) to determine which party will govern. But to what end? The operation of the majoritarian procedural principle of democracy in Guyana has precipitated “Ethnic Security Dilemmas” in some groups, even since independence was on the horizon. For Indian-Guyanese, which at one time could deliver a majority on their own to their preferred party, the PPP, as Dr Cheddi Jagan said, they would be in “office” but not in “power”.
In 2003, in the midst of a sustained attack by “African Freedom Fighters” opposing the PPP Government, the World Bank, in its report, “Development Policy Review” described the Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma in Guyana rather succinctly:
“Despite the fact that the ruling party (PPP) enjoys majority control of the Legislative and Executive branches, the political system has been characterised by deadlock. This is in part due to the fact that the Afro-Guyanese, who are the main supporters of the Opposition PNC, are dominant in the public sector generally, and in the Police and defence forces in particular. By virtue of its control of the capital city Georgetown, the Opposition also frequently paralyses the city to further its political agenda”.
The Indian numerical advantage, which they enjoyed up to a decade ago, could always have been checkmated by the PNC, whose African-Guyanese supporters occupied the strategic power centres. Before taking any policy decision, the Indian-supported PPP Executive had to take into consideration, whether the PNC will initiate violence, under cover of their control of State institutions. The PPP had to hark to the “principle of anticipated reactions”, while their Indian supporters suffered from an omnipresent fear of being exterminated by their political opponents.
The African-Guyanese suffered from their own Ethnic Security Dilemma up to 2011. Until then, they could never win the Executive and Legislative if they played by the rules of the majoritarian democratic game because of their minority status, and the Indians also voted along ethnic lines. This dilemma fostered a dysfunctional political system where they had a great incentive to go outside the rules of the game to secure power. This is why Burnham’s rigging was excused between 1968 and 1985. Their frustration also led to some of them accepting violence as a political option as we saw in the 1998-2008 period of “African Freedom Fighters” based in Buxton. The African Security Dilemma, however, has disappeared with the Indian-Guyanese population dropping below 39% today.
Even when they were a minority, the PNC did a great disservice to the nation by not pointing out to its African-Guyanese supporters that they still controlled most of the bases of power in Guyana: the disciplined forces, the bureaucracy, the Judiciary, and control of the capital of Georgetown. Today, when they can secure political power with those key state institutions augmented, the Indian Security Dilemma has been exacerbated.
Democracy presumes that the State will be managed for all the people of the country. Those who manage the affairs of the State have to ensure that they are servants of the people. Hegel called them the “universal class”. If the staffing of the institutions of the State are in the control of any one group then this in itself presents dilemma for democracy. Today, the African Guyanese faction that can command a majority and also the state threatens at best, a “tyranny of the majority” for the other groups. They can only hope for the benevolence of that majority – which has been notably lacking since 2015.
The Indigenous peoples have remained the most powerless group in Guyana since their first encounter with Columbus in 1498, even though it is acknowledged that they are the original inhabitants of Guyana, and that the land was forcibly taken away from them. They were denied contact with the rest of the world, resulting in one of the starkest instances of underdevelopment and internal colonialism in the world.
However, the formation of a political party acknowledging Indigenous roots and directly courting their support might at long last give them some leverage on the National Assembly to bargain on their behalf. Their security dilemma because of their minority status might be addressed.
It should be clear that while elections are necessary for democracy in Guyana they are not sufficient for justice. There needs to be an arrangement worked out to guarantee a fair share of power to all groups in Guyana.