As we approach elections, many new parties calling themselves “multiracial”, will be formed to “solve” our political logjam. I offer an observation made a year before our historical free and fair elections that were supposed to usher in a new age of democracy in Guyana. It is still valid. “Whatever their faults, our parties, like parties everywhere, do not merely affect, they also reflect the nuances of their societies. So the fault, dear friends, might also lie in ourselves. Politicians cannot lead followers wherever the politicians want them to go, for followers will only go in directions they find preferable to the alternatives available: leaders can catalyse but not initiate ethnic reactions”.
Political parties arose in Europe that had already “solved” its ethnic problem by transforming it from a national question into an international one. The people in each state were more or less one ethnic group, with minorities who “go along to get along”. These countries had completed their national revolutions to form nations out of diverse peoples and were moving onto their participatory revolution or democratisation, where subjects would become citizens with the right to choose their governors. Their welfare revolution, focusing on economic justice, was down the road.
We in Guyana, in common with many world states in the post-World War 11 era, were forced to confront all three revolutions simultaneously. We have still not resolved any and the challenges remain. Our politicians ignored the national revolution totally, even though we were an almost textbook case of a plural society. They focused solely on participation and welfare but even here ignored the need to adapt our political institutions. Their mobilisation produced an ethnic party system which is qualitatively different from that of homogeneous societies on which it was modelled.
In the former, the party competition is on a single axis: ethnicity; while in the latter, there are many crosscutting axes: class, religion, region [rural-urban], etc. In an ethnic party system, the ethnic axis of competition controls the party formation, survival and competition. In homogeneous societies, many individuals vote for parties depending on the parties’ stand on issues. Since all parties have to court this bloc of “swing” votes the parties’ positions tend to converge and preclude extremism.
In divided societies such as Guyana, however, voters gravitate to the two ends of the competition axis depending on their ethnic origins. The party’s stand on issues becomes almost irrelevant since it is supported solely as a protector of the group’s interest. This type of voting is not necessarily irrational; the simultaneously ongoing welfare revolution ensures that the economic demands of the ethnic vote may be satisfied if his party secures power.
The PPP began as a true multi-ethnic party, even though it espoused a socialist, non-ethnic line, ie, its members encompassed the main competing ethnic groups and the leadership was seen to represent these sections. The split of the PPP into PPP [Jagan], and PPP [Burnham], subsumed into ethnicity, the incipient urban – rural, middle class – lower class dichotomies. The disintegration of the PPP was not only the result of leadership egos: the reasons go to the extreme difficulty in maintaining multi-ethnic parties into plural societies.
Firstly, the ethnic parties emerged contrary to the wishes of the leaders: both Jagan and Burnham tried to secure multi-ethnic support. But the question of “who leads” inevitably produces fissionistic strains: witness the AFC leadership elections. The uneasy personal relations between leaders of different ethnic groups, stemming greatly from their different cultural backgrounds, don’t help especially when augmented with the incompatibility of the claims of their several ethnic constituencies. But most importantly, there is pressure from members of each constituency on their respective leaders to go it alone.
The last arises from “flank” parties or groups which inevitably arise to “secure” ethnic rights. They take strong ethnic positions driving the ersatz “multi-ethnic” party to respond in order to retain its base. Witness the role of the WPA vis a vis the PNC today.
Another major reason for the lack of successful multi-ethnic parties is the difficulty of producing a multi-ethnic leadership structure which has the confidence of the various ethnic groups. The “iron law of oligarchy”, ie that power inevitably accretes in a small elite within any organisations, is perceived to operate.
Who really sees the PNC’s or the PPP’s leaderships as “really” multi-ethnic?