There is no country in the world that does not have divisions; these span the spectrum along economic, ideological, ethnic, racial, tribal and other differences. Under a democratic system that demands citizens be agglomerated to produce majorities for governing the state, it should not be surprising that politicians mobilise along these already existing lines of cleavage. Based on a wide array of factors and historical contingencies, each country – even when they are sociologically similar – will evolve political systems in which particular cleavages will dominate. In Guyana, this has been the racial-ethnic cleavage, since these two categories are coterminous here.
Most Guyanese bemoan the upsurge in tensions that coincide with elections – which even intensifies into violence, as occurred in West Berbice two weeks ago. Some blame politicians for these tensions and violence; and, in some cases, rightfully so, for stirring up the conflict, as PNC leader David Granger and Opposition Leader Joseph Harmon did. But it must be appreciated that the potential for conflict was already there, waiting to be stirred up; the politicians did not create the source of the conflict, which is immanent in the warp and woof of the society itself.
But, in constituting modern democratic societies, we have evolved institutions – rules of behaviour around a value – to address those inevitable stresses, strains and tensions at both the individual and group levels. For those citizens who may decide to “settle differences” on their own, states have institutions that seek to uphold “law and order” – the Police and the judiciary. And the rest of society must insist that these institutions do their jobs fairly and efficiently, or else some may decide “to take the law into their own hands”.
At the group level, over the last two hundred years in the old democracies and here over the last 70 years, we have evolved a democratic system in which political parties are formed to compete to agglomerate that magical 50% + 1 to take the reins of Government. As Dr Eric Williams said when his PNM won the first elections in Trinidad under the universal franchise back in 1956, it was time to “take the fight from the streets into the halls of parliament.”
Trinidad has enjoyed comparative peace since then, primarily because the major parties – representing their two major ethnic groups of Indian and African descendants – decided to follow the rules of the political game. The Indian- Trinidadian minority (up to 1995) under various political parties’ banners, accepted their role in the Opposition. Likewise, when the Indian-Trinidadian UNC won the 1995 elections, the African-Trinidadian-dominated PNM accepted its move to the Opposition benches. They have enjoyed a series of alternating governments since then, without the predicted upheavals. The secret, if there was one, was that the political parties accepted the rules of the game, and stayed off the streets.
In Guyana, however, we were forced into another direction when Forbes Burnham took office in a coalition of his African-Guyanese-dominated PNC with a multi-racial business oriented United Force that gave him the coveted majority. However, he jettisoned the latter and governed by rigging all elections till his death in 1985. He rejected the democratic rules of the game. His successor, Desmond Hoyte, rigged the 1985 elections, but was pressured by the US to accept the democratic rules of “free and fair” elections in 1992, which the PPP won.
However, the PNC accepted the democratic rules only in the breach, and led violent protests in the streets in every election up to 2011. Gangs, emboldened by their example, even launched armed attacks against the state and Indian-Guyanese perceived supporters of the PPP between 2002 and 2008. We had a precarious peace since then, as the PNC tried to shed its violent image through a new coalition with the then multiracial AFC.
However, after they ran roughshod over the latter and lost that support – and the elections of March, 2020, which they attempted to rig – some of their supporters have threatened to “return to the streets” after the WC Berbice killings and riots.
We hope good sense will prevail.