Building a nation

Stabroek News
March 10, 2001

Guyana is not unique. There are divided societies, as they are called by political scientists, all over the world. The divisions are based, in various cases, on ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic differences. The people in these societies are engaged in trying to work out whether they can live together, if necessary by making appropriate adjustments legally, constitutionally and politically. Another name for the process is nation building, it is not easy, it takes time, it may require compromises and in a few cases it can fail.

Elections are important, they are a vital part of a democracy. But are they in themselves enough? For example it is possible to have a situation in which one side has an inbuilt numerical advantage if voting is conducted largely along ethnic lines. In such a case, however hard the other side may campaign and however attractive their programme they may be unable to command a majority or even a plurality of the vote. If this situation exists, it sooner or later poses a more fundamental problem which is whether such a system is viable or whether the winner take all system needs to be altered.

In other words, the deck may be stacked and the system may be unfair but this has nothing to do with rigging an election. It means that because of demographics one side has little or no chance of winning. If that side refuses to accept that reality conceptually there is inevitably a strong psychological tendency to reject the results of the elections and to suggest that there were irregularities of one kind or another, whether that is so or not. The result has to be explained away because it is not seen to be fair, in the broader sense.

Many of these societies have inherited political and constitutional systems that worked perfectly well in their country of origin but may require some measure of change to adapt to local circumstances. That is what the evolving polity may require and that is indeed what political scientists like Arend Lipjhart have been grappling with, dealing with a wide range of societies ranging from Switzerland and Belgium to Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Fiji in which there have been experiments with different forms of democracy, involving power sharing of one kind or another. Our own Sir Arthur Lewis had done pioneering work in the field in the Whidden Lectures in l965 based on his experience of politics in different countries in West Africa in which he raised the fundamental question of what form democracy should take in tribal or ethnically divided societies. It is still a fundamental text from which Caribbean scholars should start on their ongoing quest for a free, fair and open society.

The elections may be fundamentally flawed, not because there is manipulation of any kind but because one side can't win. Logically, that side should engage in a process of wide ranging dialogue with the other side to seek a different format. That is what happened in Belgium, Northern Ireland and Fiji within the last decade. And of course in South Africa there was a negotiated transition from minority rule to democracy, initially involving power sharing between Mandela and De Klerk.

It may seem wrong, and it is certainly uncomfortable, to think of one's own country as a divided society. A large part of the daily reality seems to deny this as everyone mixes freely and intimately. Yet the struggle for power at election time polarises the society every time, and it seems to get worse, not better. Is there another solution, as the Herdmanston Accord had suggested?