Maintaining democracy

Stabroek News
June 2, 1999

Is Guyana a society that is divided along ethnic lines? What exactly does that mean? Can democracy be maintained in a country divided along ethnic lines? Can constitutional adjustments be made that will help? That is one of the issues being considered by the Constitution Reform Commission as some submissions have been received proposing various forms of power sharing though neither of the two main parties has proposed any fundamental change in this regard.

When can a society be said to be divided along ethnic lines? The mere presence of different ethnic groups is not enough as no country is completely homogeneous. Does it depend on the proportions of the ethnic groups(e.g. roughly equal with neither dominant), the degree of cultural and social assimilation, the level of geographic or territorial separation, job and occupation differentiation, voting patterns? Must other factors be considered such as the level of development or prosperity? At what stage does a country require changes or new institutions designed to modify majoritarian systems and promote interethnic relations and compromise?

There are many in Guyana, including the leaders of the two main parties, who feel that the existing system of government is adequate, subject perhaps to amendments to presidential powers and parliamentary procedures. They do not accept that the society is severely divided along ethnic lines, they believe that their parties appeal to the entire electorate and that given a fair and competently run electoral system governments will be elected with majority support, or coalition governments will be produced, that can run the country effectively. They see no need for radical experiments to move away from the established majoritarian system, they believe that might lead to a situation which is unstable or unworkable.

Their views must not be lightly discounted. The Westminster system we inherited, now with a presidential imposition, has worked well in many countries and produced stable government. Are we convinced that there is now such a level of ethnic division that the traditional system is no longer workable and that experiments should be made? It is also true that there is no established ready made alternative. Responsible analysts entertain grave doubts as to whether consociational or consensus democracy can work. That system, expressly designed to reduce conflict in ethnically divided societies, provides for governing coalitions of the main parties, the electoral system of proportional representation, shared representation in cabinet and public offices, consensual decision making in cabinet with mutual veto powers and considerable group autonomy. Can that work or will it lead to gridlock or to a manipulative, elitist politics where deals are done at the top and there is no effective opposition? Are there other techniques or mechanisms that will reduce interethnic tensions and that do not involve that level of power sharing, such as managing parliament through a joint committee of the main parties, having a strong Race Relations Commission to deal with incidents of discrimination, fair employment legislation, devolving more power to the municipalities and so on?

The issues are complex but they should be faced up to rather than wished away. And Guyana is not unique, we do not face a special set of circumstances that exist nowhere else. Many other countries have faced severe problems of ethnic division and have dealt with them in various ways. More recently, and the ones with which we are most familiar, include South Africa (executive power sharing for a limited period), Northern Ireland (an experiment with a form of consociational democracy on which the jury is still out) and Fiji where a government has just been elected under a new system designed to reduce ethnic conflict where the outcome will be closely watched.

Ethnic voting patterns have been established in Guyana since l957, the first election after the split in the original PPP. They have been clearly visible in all the fair elections (l957, l96l, l964, l992 and l997). The experience of the WPA (and other small parties) has shown how difficult it is to break the ethnic stranglehold. The PPP and the PNC have got used to this system which gives them both an established and reliable support base. But have they thought through the logical implications if ethnic voting patterns persist? Can the minority party win? Is the system viable?

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples