By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Guyana has elections on March 2. Which party is likely to win? Regardless of which side wins, can one party be able to govern the country?
Guyana is a very deeply divided nation. Anyone who states otherwise is fooling the population or does not understand its politics. There is serious ethnic conflict between the two major races Indians and Africans. Neither side wishes to be governed by members of the other race? Clearly, it will be difficult for one party to govern the nation.
Will the March 2 elections solve the ethnic problem in which half of the nation wins and the other half is excluded from decision making and by extension resources and handouts of the government? This ‘winner takes all’ political system that excludes half the population has not and will not solve the racial politics or bring people and their parties together to facilitate economic development.
For over sixty five years, the country has stagnated or failed to reach its full potential under this failed system of winner takes all that excludes half the nation on account of race. It is time to try some other political system in which power is shared by all elected parties and all races.
With the election campaign in full swing, voters are polarized as ever. Racial tension is very high; violence is on the rise amidst fear mongering. Some speakers resort to ethnic appeal with a few uttering prejudicial stereotypes against others. So the elections will not bring a solution to racial conflict. And no party is attracting significant cross-racial support to make it truly multi-ethnic. In fact, the country faces a serious challenge to hold free and fair elections as a result of racial tension and ‘racialized’ (though not necessarily racist) parties. The fear of ‘rigging’ is widespread among voters.
Which party is likely to come out on top? Both sides (coalition and PPP) feel they will win. Some opinion polls and a report on a website say PPP ahead. Opinion polls conducted by this writer show a close outcome and a very polarized electorate. No party will win by a big majority. A majority feel the election will be rigged. It is conceivably possible that neither side can win a majority. Some feel such an outcome is best for the country as it would force the parties to work together for national development.
A website news (ICDN) says that there is an increase in confidence among voters in Guyana in the opposition PPP Irfaan Ali’s Presidential leadership and that he positioned to win. The site says there is a climate of positive feeling regarding Irfaan. It says he has very high levels of support. He has strong support from the leader of the party, Bharrat Jagdeo, who the site says has been given rock star status as an election campaigner. The site notes that Jagdeo’s popularity is increasingly being transferred onto Irfaan. Jagdeo is the most popular figure in the country. The coalition Presidential candidate President David Granger is also attracting huge support among its base. He is ably supported by the popular Joe Harmon similar to how Irfaan is supported by Jagdeo.
Regardless of the outcome, post elections, the ethnic problem will persist. And there will be instability. And so will the challenge to accommodate rival ethnic groups in the distribution of resources and jobs, both of which will seriously impact on the economy as has been the case since the 1960s. Post-elections, Guyana will still continue to fail to realize its full potential.
So what should be done to ameliorate the ethnic tension and conflict in the society and lay the conditions for growth and development? Regardless of which party triumphs in the elections, it should immediately set about to construct a new constitutional arrangement that grants the varied groups (via their elected representatives) a share in governance in accordance with the proportion of votes received. In short, there should be some form of power sharing among all elected parties. No ethnic group and its representatives should dominate the government.
The talk that a party is multi-ethnic and representative of all groups is just that – all talk, not reality. Although a party may receive support from several groups, as indeed is the case with most parties, the leadership of a party is dominated by members of a larger group and most resources (when in power) also go to the members and supporters of that larger group. Members of the other (smaller) groups or from the ‘defeated’ group are mere tokens in the pawn for dominance by the larger group. This type of politics must come to an end immediately post-elections replaced by one in which all ethnic groups feel they are part of governance.
All parties now in the electoral fray should commit to power sharing in which elected rep of every group is included in governance in accordance with its electoral strength as happens in places like Switzerland, Belgium, Northern Ireland, etc. There should also be some kind of decentralization of power and cultural autonomy backed by a relatively equitable distribution of resources for the groups. Such a formula or constitutional reform will help to lessen ethnic tension, bring stability, promote better governance, and reduce corruption. It will create the minimum conditions for long lasting growth, peace, and development. In the long run, the country will be better off than the current winner takes all political system that excludes half the country based on political affiliation and ethnicity.