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The Guyanese Situation: A Challenge to Reform the Political Framework

Education 22 Jul, 2020 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

‘A litmus test of any democracy is the peaceful and orderly transfer of power if that is so ordained by the expressed will of the people. Sadly, Guyana has failed that test. The people of Guyana are not to be blamed. They expressed that will in a commendably peaceful and orderly manner on March 2. But the pernicious actions of a few have wreaked considerable damage to Guyana’s image and reputation. Even if this debacle is soon and satisfactorily resolved, it will perhaps take a generation and significant institutional reform for that damage to be fully repaired. The people of Guyana did not deserve this.’ Statement to OAS, Head of Electoral Observer Mission of the OAS to Guyana’s 2020 General and Regional Elections, July 21, 2020, Bruce Golding.

Despite the various challenges facing the English-Speaking Caribbean, it is a region known for its practice of the democratic method in choosing and changing their political leadership. Some of these countries are better at it and all have their challenges as they mature their processes, but the practice has been that after an election exercise, the winners are announced and the losers accept, even if reluctantly.

Even though the Guyanese people went to the polls on March 2, 2020, the official results are still being debated and no new government is yet in place. This was a most significant elections because of one of the largest new discoveries of oil in the world off the coast of that country. According to ExxonMobil, Guyana could be producing 750,000 barrels of oil per day within five years. This development has the potential to revolutionize the development trajectory of this country with benefits for the region.

A news release from some prominent Caribbean intellectuals On July 1, commended the rigorous and ‘commendably thorough election process: ‘… whereby all voters: produced photo identification or their National Identification Card; had their identity verified by a Presiding Officer against a registry of legitimate voters; dipped their index finger in indelible ink to avoid voting duplication; folded their ballot so that the vote remained anonymous; and placed their vote securely into an official ballot box.’

The release states further that the election itself on March 2, was “perhaps one of the most outstanding, credible and well-run elections” ever witnessed by most of the election observers which included scrutineers from all political parties, the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), along with external election observers from several countries.’

‘The results of the tabulation of votes revealed that 460,352 valid votes were cast in the General Election, with the PPP/C opposition party securing 233,336 votes and the incumbent APNU/AFC coalition receiving 217,920 votes. This result, certified by GECOM, whose mandate it is to determine the final credible count, indicated that the opposition party had clearly won the General Election.’ Based on the certified results of the polls, the PPP/C, with 50.69 per cent of the vote would have 33 seats in Parliament and the APNU/AFC, with 47.34 per cent, would have 31 seats.’

The PPP/C, the party in opposition, won the elections based on the national recount that ended on June 9. However, the ruling coalition, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), said that there were several irregularities and anomalies and has been challenging the results through the court.

Bruce Golding, Head of Electoral Observer Mission of the OAS to Guyana’s 2020 General and Regional Elections, has not minced words in pointing out the ‘Repeated attempts of certain electoral stakeholders to fraudulently alter the results of the elections to hand the APNU+AFC coalition a false national victory. This has resulted in an electoral process which has gone on for four and half a months, with more litigation likely to further protract the process.’

One felt that the involvement of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and its ruling in support of the Opposition Party would have been sufficient to settle the matter. But it has not as litigation processes are continuing.

Of significance is the chorus of persons and countries calling for the government to concede and hand power over to the Opposition Party based on the certified figures of the National Recount but the government has been reluctant to do so. Owen Arthur, former Prime Minister of Barbados and the Head of the Commonwealth observer team, Mia Mottley (Prime Minister of Barbados), and Ralph Gonsalves (Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines) have also stated that the elections were free and fair, and the recount credible. Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor, UWI, has called for these results to be respected.

As the group of intellectuals pointed out, ‘There is no reason to doubt the consensus opinion and veracity of the CARICOM observer team, the OAS, the Commonwealth Observation Mission, The Carter Center, the Embassies and Ambassadors of Canada, United Kingdom, European Union, and the United States. Several independent bodies in Guyana, including the Guyana Human Rights Association, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, the Guyana Bar Association, and even partners within the APNU/AFC coalition itself have determined that the 2020 election was free and fair, and that the recount was credible.’

The question then becomes why is the government hesitant to leave office for the new government to be in charge? At the heart of the issue and the gamesmanship is the nature of ethnic politics, a reality in the Guyanese situation. The ethnic demography of Guyana is significantly at the root of political behaviour: Indo-Guyanese, 44%; Afro-Guyanese 30%; mixed 17% and Indigenous Amerindians, 9%.


The dangers of ethnic politics

An important flaw of the Westminster System, bequeathed though British colonialism, is that because one of its basic principles is ‘the winner- takes-all’, applied to ethnically divided societies, like Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, the problems are compounded even to the point of threat of ethnic wars. In the southern Caribbean, in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname, there are substantial numbers of persons of Asian descent from India.

As much as some would like the image of the Caribbean to be one that is non-racial, the Caribbean is an immensely complex place with regard to race and culture. As one scholar puts it, ‘Below the seeming sameness lurks numerous identities around the axes of race, culture, language, religion, region, etc.’

Ralph Premdas, visiting researcher at the Hellen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, in his penetrating essay, ‘Ethnicity and Identity in the Caribbean: Decentering the Myth,’ puts it this way: ‘In the Caribbean, this is most poignantly expressed in those states that are geographically large, culturally plural, and racially fragmented, such as Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, and Belize. These sub-state identities tend to be thinly constructed on a diversity of deep cultural divisions.’

‘In fact, they are likely to be marked by a large number of shared national traits which in a crunch of hostile intergroup tensions become overly magnified. For instance, in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname, in part because of the rise of ethno-nationalist politics, Indians are likely to deny the impact that creolization has had in shaping a shared identity with other citizens and instead assert their Indian cultural characteristics even though these are only thinly continuous and retained from their ancestral past.’

‘Regardless, however, of their lack of cultural depth and the presence of many shared traits, these perceived differences are held to be crucially meaningful and have led to strong assertions of separate sub-state identities, particularly against their neighbours in many parts of the Caribbean, with such potency that they command the primary allegiance of residents in these areas.’

The Westminster system has not helped in these societies. In fact, as Premdas in his insightful paper, ‘Ethnicity and Elections in the Caribbean’ points out, ‘Political mobilization has played on these cleavages so that ethnic sensitivity and assertiveness pervade these states like blood the body. In public discourse few issues are definitionally free from ethnic motifs, and in some instances, these are flagrantly and inflammatorily articulated. Practically every week, in the southern Caribbean in particular but also elsewhere, some sort of interethnic strife surfaces from the cleavages in the plural societies of the region.’

In Trinidad, the National Movement (PNM), is Afro- Trinidadian dominated and in Guyana, the two main parties have been traditionally linked to either of the ethnic groups. Premdas explains that in Suriname, there are tensions between two Afro-Surinamese groups, Creoles and Bush Negroes, each seen as culturally distinct and regarding themselves as such.

Donald Horowitz’s theory of party competition in an ethnically divided society helps to explain how this came to be. His theory of party competition in an ethnically divided society is explained in his seminal text, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (2000). A political system in which there are ethnically based parties on both sides of a communal divide tends to deepen division and exacerbate conflict between opposing groups.

Writing on the situation in Trinidad, Ralph Premdas asserts that: ‘The electoral device with these internal properties, however, was imported into Trinidad from Britain, an environment radically different in social structure from Trinidad. The adaptation of the electoral device to the multiethnic society in Trinidad has left important questions unresolved about the roles of representation, integration, citizen commitment, and government accountability assigned to the electoral system.

‘Representation tends to become communalized so that the party in power symbolizes not the public will but sectional solidarity and interests. Citizen commitment is passionately expressed but communally cleaved so that only one section at a time identifies with the governing regime. The out-section is alienated. Elections elicit fearsome primordial responses and are deeply divisive affairs. In a communally divided society lacking shared beliefs, all political structures, however neutrally designed, tend to be tainted and imbued with suspect ethnic motifs and interests. Consequently, the electoral device, ordinarily in its appropriate social system, becomes larger than its original purpose which was designed for selecting decision-makers.’

Especially in these societies, the Westminster System must be reassessed to allow for power sharing and consensus, over competition for power. The objective must be to promote racial harmony and national unity and the economic and social advancement of all communities in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Ethnic politics must not be allowed to compromise the economic opportunities and delay the development of the country especially considering its new oil wealth. There is no use for political leaders, of whatever variety, who cannot rise above their immediate influences to consider and protect the national interest.

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